A coalition of environmental groups – the California Water Impact Network, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, and AquAlliance – have submitted a notice of intent to sue the State Water Resources Control Board unless it rescinds an order to suspend water quality and fish protections in California rivers and the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, according to a coalition press release.
The Board's order was issued following a decision by Governor Gavin Newsom to retain water in state reservoirs to ensure future deliveries for Central Valley agriculture. The order constituted an end-run around state and federal legal requirements to maintain adequate water quality and temperature conditions for salmon below dams.
Fish advocates and conservationists were enraged by the order, given 2023's abundant rainfall and snowpack and repeated cutbacks over the years in the reservoir releases that sustained the ecological health of the Sacramento River and its Delta, resulting in the collapse of California's iconic salmon runs.
"There was absolutely no need for the Governor to suspend critical water quality objectives simply to save water for delivery to big agriculture," said Carolee Krieger, the Executive Director of the California Water Impact Network. "It follows a long pattern and practice that appears intentionally directed against the fish. If there are no salmon, then it won't be necessary to enforce the laws protecting them.”
The notice of intent charges the State Board with violating a lawsuit settlement that constrained the agency from issuing certain suspensions to water quality, the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Endangered Species Act, California's "state of emergency" codes, and the public trust doctrine, a body of law that confirms critical resources such as water and fisheries must provide primary benefit to the people in common.
"It's an egregious violation of both the law and the state's obligation to uphold the public trust," said Chris Shutes, the Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Alliance. "Bad water management killed the 2023 salmon season by killing most of the fish. The baby salmon that are now in the rivers need every opportunity the law provides so they can survive and swim to the ocean and commercial fishers and sport anglers can catch them in 2024 and 2025.”
Krieger said Newsom's order also undermines flood control efforts by maintaining excessively high reservoir levels during 2023's record storms and snowpack.
"If we get sustained warm rains on the Sierra's massive snowpack, reservoir managers won't be able to release water fast enough to prevent disastrous flooding," Krieger said. "At this point, the state is pointing to Shasta Reservoir on the Sacramento River as an adequate safeguard, insisting it has plenty of capacity. We have our doubts. But even if it's true, they ignore Folsom Reservoir on the American River northeast of Sacramento. It is undersize and has an inadequate release capacity for the volume of snowpack in that watershed. This order must be rescinded now to ensure adequate public safety.”
Barbara Vlamis, the Executive Director of AquAlliance, said Newsom's recent order extends a long record of disregard for water quality, fisheries, and public trust obligations.
"This order follows the groundwater recharge projects that were embedded in the February extension of his drought order," Vlamis said. "Recharge programs for our groundwater basins are highly beneficial when they're conducted properly. But Newsom's approach enables the transfer of groundwater rights to private parties, essentially turning a public resource into a private cash cow. Newsom has been a terrible disappointment to us.”