The San Francisco Bay and all forms of life that depend upon it are in trouble. So declares a new study from The Bay Institute which finds that upstream water diversions have removed so much water from the Delta and the Bay estuary that artificially created "supercritically dry” years have become the norm — endangering the entire ecosystem as a result. No need to panic or anything.
The Chronicle picked up the study, and noted that it shows evidence of "the planet’s Sixth Mass Extinction." Yeah, so that's a terrifying term. "Inflow to the Bay from its Central Valley watershed now averages less than half of what it would be without diversions; in some years just one-third of the runoff makes it to the Bay," reads the study summary. "The result is a nearly permanent drought for the Bay’s fish, wildlife, and their habitats. This radical alteration creates severe consequences for the Bay and marine ecosystems — and Bay Area residents pay the price."
According to the study, those "severe consequences" are brought about because the water diversion "Dramatically cuts production of fish and shrimp that are the food source for marine mammals, like Orca Whales, and birds; Allows pollutants to accumulate to dangerous levels and encourages blooms of toxic algae; Reduces sediment supply to Bay Area wetlands and beaches; [and] Makes it easier for undesirable non-native species to successfully invade the Bay Estuary."
The diverted water, obviously, is being put to use — a fact which makes it politically difficult to restore flows to levels the watershed needs to thrive. "[Thousands] of dams, over 600 large reservoirs, and 1,300 miles of diversion canals throughout the Bay’s watershed" reroute the natural flow of water for farming and other uses, the full report tells us.
According to Chris Scheuring, a lawyer for the California Farm Bureau, farmers are not going to take suggested reductions in water use lightly. "I hear talk from our membership up on the (tributaries) that they are not in a lay-down mode on this one,” Scheuring told the Chronicle. “It’s just too big for them to not push back.”
“The idea that we can just sort of stop diverting from our rivers," he continued, "the argument hardly even needs to be made against it.”
And yet, some sort of compromise is going to be required if the Bay estuary — and all the life it supports — isn't going to be choked out of existence.
"The primary responsibility for meeting Bay estuary water quality standards falls on a small subset of water districts that get water from the federal and state water projects," the report notes. "These agencies represent a quarter or less of total water use in the Bay’s watershed. Requiring all water users, including those with senior water rights, to contribute a fair share would spread the burden more equitably and generate millions of acre-feet of additional water to restore the estuary."
"The window of opportunity to protect this treasure is closing rapidly," the report concludes.