The cities and towns hit this week with stiff demands to reduce water use, including San Francisco, say they’ll work with state regulators to meet the charge, but they’re also looking at the possibility of lawsuits.
The State Water Resources Control Board approved a far-reaching plan Wednesday to improve the health of California’s rivers and fish by limiting the amount of water that dozens of communities take from four major waterways.
While the plan leaves room for negotiating the extent of the water reductions, the agencies that draw from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries say legal action may be a necessary backstop in case they’re forced to cut more than they can afford.
“At the end of the day, we do serve our customers and we have to do what’s best for the community,” said Samantha Wookey, spokeswoman for the Modesto Irrigation District, one of the state’s biggest water suppliers and now subject to restrictions on the Tuolumne River.
San Francisco, which also relies on the Tuolumne River and faces cutbacks, has begun evaluating whether a lawsuit is appropriate, according to the city attorney’s office.
Under the state plan, San Francisco residents and businesses could face reductions of 40 percent or more during prolonged dry periods, according to estimates from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
The aim of the state water board is to prevent the collapse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The sprawling estuary, which serves as a hub of state water supplies and is a vital conduit for threatened salmon, has suffered from too little water and too much contamination amid heavy pumping.
While the water board’s plan would saddle water users with restrictions to boost flows into the delta, regulators introduced leniency Wednesday in an effort to head off litigation, which would result in years of delay in the plan’s implementation. The board stipulated that it will attempt to integrate proposals by water agencies to trade habitat restoration for smaller water reductions.
It appears, though, the board’s strategy may not have worked.
Ever since the water board began updating its plan a decade ago, it has had to maneuver a path between water users who don’t want limits on their draws and fishermen and environmentalists who want substantial caps.
The conservation community also presents a threat for legal action, with many having committed to suing if the environmental safeguards approved Wednesday are weakened.
The Bay Delta Plan calls for maintaining an average of 40 percent of the natural flow of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries during peak spring runoff. Currently, the flows average 20 percent or less because of diversions. Sometimes the waterways dry up entirely.