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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Clarifying Effects of Environmental Protections on Freshwater Flows to—and Water Exports from—the San Francisco Bay Estuary

  • Author(s): Reis, Gregory J.;
  • Howard, Jeanette K.;
  • Rosenfield, Jonathan A.
  • et al.

Understanding and resolving conflicts over management of scarce natural resources requires access to information that helps characterize the problem. Where information is lacking, perceived differently by stakeholders, or provided without relevant context, these conflicts can become intractable. We studied water management practices and constraints that affect the flow of water into and through the San Francisco Bay estuary — home to six endangered fish species and two water export facilities owned by the state and federal governments that serve millions of people and large expanses of agricultural land in California. Media reports reflect widely held beliefs that environmental regulations, and particularly protections for endangered fish species, frequently limit water diversions and substantially increase freshwater flow to San Francisco Bay. We analyzed long-term trends in freshwater flow to San Francisco Bay relative to annual runoff from its Central Valley watershed, and the frequency and magnitude of specific regulatory and physical constraints that govern operations of the water export facilities. We found that the percentage of Central Valley runoff that reached San Francisco Bay during the ecologically sensitive winter-spring period declined over the past several decades, such that the estuary experienced drought conditions in most years. During a 9-year period that included a severe natural drought, exports were constrained to maintain salinity control as often as to protect endangered fish populations. Salinity-control and system-capacity constraints were responsible for Delta outflow volumes that dwarfed those related to protection of fish and wildlife populations, endangered or otherwise. These results run counter to common media narratives. We recommend rapid synthesis and easily accessible presentation of data on Central Valley water diversions and constraints on them; such data should be contextualized via comparison to regional hydrology and water management system capacity.

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