California regulators have released a draft plan that would provide more water for threatened fish in the major tributaries of the lower San Joaquin River.
The river flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which provides drinking water to Californians and millions of acres of farmland.
The State Water Resources Control Board says for decades up to 70 percent of the water in the Merced, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus river is diverted - much of it for agriculture.
Water regulators say those flows are not enough to protect threatened fish species, including salmon.
"These flows have not been updated since 1995, and they never addressed fish and wildlife needs in the individual tributaries that are critical to the species health and survival," says Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. "The current standards are out of date and fish populations have plummeted in the intervening 20 years.”
The proposal could nearly double the minimum flow for fish in some of the rivers. But much of that would come at the expense of agriculture and southern Delta communities, says Vito Chiesa, with the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.
“Our whole land value system in Stanislaus County is predicated on the availability of surface water," says Chiesa. "So when there’s a loss of surface water we’re going to see huge losses in the property tax and sales tax and those are what pay for critical services for our constituents.”
He calls the proposal devastating. He and a coalition of southern Delta communities and farming interests oppose the plan. The water board will conduct a series of public hearings on the proposal in November.