Welcome to California River Watch!

I find some hope for the future of our planet in the emergence of millions of unconnected environmental and social movements. The leaderless Anarchy of this mass phenomenon and its macro scale means that its cells will not be centrally controlled or turned aside by profit motives. It seems to be a genuine grass roots response to the global threat which our planet faces. —Paul Hawken «

“Fix it in your constitution that no corporation, no body of men, no capital can get possession and right to your waters. Hold the waters in the hands of the people.”

John Wesley Powell 1890 North Dakota Constitutional Convention

Landmark Lawsuit Settlement Between Environmentalists and State Water Boards Strengthens Delta Protections

Sorax, The Ghost of Coho Salmon Past, Addresses The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors By Brock Dolman

Brock Dolman in a salmon suit testifying to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on behalf of Totem Salmon.
Brock Dolman in a salmon suit testifying to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on behalf of Totem Salmon.

I am a ghost of coho salmons past, once born and raised in Dutch Bill Creek, below Occidental. My last reported sighting there was in the 1960's. I speak for all salmon and wildlife species not able to attend your meetings. Do you realize that as public servants and supposed stewards of the Russian River that it is the only river in California to have three listed Salmonid species: Coho, Chinook and Steelhead? That is three distinct species of unique, ancient animals. 

Shall I remind you that humans, all 6 billion of you, compromise only one distinct species, which at this point ought to be renamed “Homo consumous.” We as salmon, as recently in our evolution as 150 years ago, used to live in peace with the humans of this land, and we co-evolved with the harbor seals and sea lions and our natal forested creeks. The abundance of our families was so great that your early pioneering families remarked "that we were so numerous" they could "walk on our backs.” 

This all changed with your arrival. In the last 100 years, or during the time of those 3rd, 4th & 5th generation families who so proudly and loudly exclaim in your newspapers to be stewards of the land, it was they who cleared this land of over 95% of its old growth forests, 95% of it's riparian forests, drained 95% of its wetlands. I ask you where are my friends the Grizzly, the elk, the antelope, the marbled Murrelet? My coho ancestors used to number 500,000 in California rivers and now our runs number less than 5,000, to as low as 1,000 individuals! We are nearing the brink of functional extinction simultaneously with such gloating of stewardship. It is critical for all of you to recognize that, compared to the past, this land is actually in a highly degraded state. 

You all need to own up to the fact that your ancestors are indisputably responsible for the overwhelming genocide of the Pomo and Miwok peoples, the silvacide of the great forests, the soilacide (as your activities have eroded and compacted the once rich fertility) and the salmonicide (as I stand before you at the tail end of our existence). If you have the vision and courage, this can change, you can turn this around if you act in earnest now. 

This erosion ordinance you pass today with its especially inadequate riparian setbacks is a feeble first step and leaves me with fear for my children, but a critical move in the right direction if you decide to take more steps and begin walking towards a future vision of ecological watershed integrity. Remember, I am a fish of the forest. Without trees, my breeding streams fill with sediment, dry up due to lack of groundwater recharge and what water remains becomes lethally hot for my young. Every aspect of your development paradigm must be questioned and reevaluated with restorative criteria. You must question your roads, parking lots, housing, industrial, agricultural, logging and mining practices. We the salmon are dying from the cumulative impacts of your collective inabilities to think like a watershed. If we go extinct and fade from memory, so will you! 

In closing, since my spawning gravel's are so embedded with silt from the denuded, compacted hillsides, I want to offer each of you, as servants of the public trust, an egg of mine that hopefully will help your thoughts to incubate on taking the recovery of Totem Salmon seriously and birthing a new vision of a shared watershed commons for the sake of all our relations. Thank you. 

Enforceable transparency and analysis to replace years of failure to comply with existing water quality and flow standards.

SACRAMENTO, California — Three California environmental nonprofits secured a landmark settlement agreement with the California State Water Resources Control Board to uphold the common law Public Trust Doctrine and other legal protections for imperiled fish species in the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay/Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta Estuary.

The lawsuit, filed in 2015 by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (“CSPA”), the California Water Impact Network (“CWIN”), and AquAlliance, brought sweeping claims against the State Water Board. It alleged that the agency’s management of the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay-Delta displayed an overarching pattern and practice of:

  • failure to comply with the Public Trust Doctrine;
  • failure to imlilement Sacramento River temlierature management requirements;
  • failure to ensure that fish below dams be maintained in “good condition”; and
  • accelitance of water quality below minimum Clean Water Act standards.

“The Water Board’s long-standing pattern and practice of inadequately implementing foundational environmental laws has brought the Central Valley aquatic ecosystem to the brink of collapse. This settlement agreement is a major step forward, compelling the State Water Board to fulfill crucial legal requirements it had previously ignored,” said Bill Jennings, CSPA Executive Director.

Among other things, the settlement terms protecting the Sacramento and Bay-Delta include:

  • transliarent evaluation of the sliecific liublic Trust Doctrine factors the Water Board will consider in determining if new Bay-Delta lilan requirements will lirotect fish and wildlife;
  • a Sacramento River Temlierature Management lirocess that addresses controllable factors, including deliveries, and ensures adequate staffing, modeling and liublic review.
  • consideration of California Fish and Game Code section 5937, lirotecting fish below dams, in Bay-Delta lilan ulidates; and
  • transliarent liublic Trust analysis for Temliorary Urgency Change lietitions.

The ancient common law Public Trust Doctrine establishes powerful public property rights in natural resources. In 2009, the Legislature, recognizing that Bay-Delta fisheries were collapsing and that standards had not been modified since 1995, commanded the State Water Board to update its “flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem necessary to protect public trust resources.” A decade later, in 2018, the State Water Board finally approved updated standards for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, known as “Phase I,” which is the subject of a separate lawsuit by CSPA, CWIN, AquAlliance, and many others. Now, in a departure from past practices, the settlement agreement requires the Board’s “Phase II” updates, addressing Sacramento River Flows and Cold Water, Delta Outflows, and Interior Delta Flows, to include a “Transparent Public Trust Evaluation,” covering enumerated factors.

“The Water Board has agreed to include ‘an express evaluation’ of the factors it considers and balances in determining whether the new standards will protect the Public Trust interests in fish and wildlife,” said Jennings.

“Before now, the Water Board’s consideration of public trust resources had been perfunctory at best,” said Carolee Krieger, CWIN Executive Director. “We hope this lawsuit will result in a culture change at the Water Board, with long-lasting impact. This agreement has teeth and can be enforced,” Krieger said.

The courts have called California Fish and Game Code section 5937 “a legislative expression of the public trust protecting fish as trust resources when found below dams.” Yet the Water Board’s past pattern and practice has been to ignore this statute altogether in its Bay-Delta planning. This agreement will now ensure that 5937 is explicitly considered in the Water Board’s Phase II analysis.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2015, after the Water Board’s approval of a series of “Temporary Urgency Change Petitions” (TUCPs) that relaxed permit restrictions for the U.S Bureau of Reclamation and California Department of Water Resources. The resulting changes during the 2014-2016 drought had catastrophic results for fish. Most of the fourteen TUCP orders failed to mention the Public Trust Doctrine at all, with only a few passing references. Under the settlement, the Water Board now agrees that its consideration of TUCPs must contain an express public trust analysis.

“A transparent process is the only way to ensure the Water Board complies with the law,” said Barbara Vlamis, AquAlliance Executive Director. “Back room deals will be a lot harder when the Water Board has to explain, in writing, how it is advancing the public’s interests in the Public Trust.”

“As a result of this lawsuit, the State Water Board can no longer completely ignore the Public Trust Doctrine in its Basin Planning and water rights orders,” said CSPA and CWIN Board Member and Mike Jackson.

Because of the lawsuit, Sacramento River temperature management will also improve.

To protect salmon spawning habitat, the Central Valley Basin Plan requires that the Bureau of Reclamation manage “controllable factors” to keep Sacramento River water temperature less than 56˚F from Keswick Dam to Hamilton City. The Basin Plan also requires Reclamation to manage controllable factors to keep water temperature no greater than 68˚F between Hamilton City and the I Street Bridge in Sacramento, whenever higher temperatures would be detrimental to migrating fish. In 1990, the Water Board adopted Water Rights Order 90-5, requiring the Bureau to submit an annual Temperature Management Plan for how to meet these temperatures. However, as late as 2019—nearly 4 years into the lawsuit—the Water Board had never required the Bureau to actually demonstrate whether it could provide colder water farther downstream using factors within its control. As a result of this lawsuit and settlement agreement, the Water Board is now asking Reclamation to analyze alternatives for the timing and quantities of water that Reclamation delivers to water users downstream, to meet temperature standards. The Board will also seek Reclamation’s analysis earlier in the year and will provide an annual opportunity for public comment and hearing.

The agreement includes an array of additional improvements. The Water Board has agreed to maintain staff with sufficient modeling and other expertise to actually evaluate the Bureau’s Sacramento River temperature impacts. The Water Board’s Phase II analysis commits to evaluate “a carryover margin of safety” of stored water from one water year to the next, to require water supply management that buffers against the potential for future dry years. Phase II will also evaluate water transfers and effects on groundwater.

“It is our expectation that, as a result of this agreement, the Water Board’s future consideration of TUCPs and Bay-Delta Plan updates will now account for and better protect public trust fisheries,” said Jennings.