Press Release: United States Bureau of Reclamation Violates Spring Flow Objectives on San Joaquin River

USBR Blatantly Ignores Standards Established to Improve Passage and Survival Rates of  Imperiled Fall-Run Chinook Salmon

San Joaquin River near Vernalis Station

Modesto, Calif. – In a move mostly shielded from public view, the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) has been served a notice of violation for failing to meet crucial spring flow objectives on the San Joaquin River near the Central Valley town of Vernalis.

The notice was issued July 18 by Craig M. Wilson, Delta Watermaster. It concludes that the USBR violated its water rights permit by deliberately failing to release sufficient water to meet required flow standards between April 15 and May 15.

The flow standards were established in 2006 under the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary. The standards require a minimum monthly average flow rate and are designed to improve the survival of Fall-run Chinook salmon as they pass through the Delta.

“Given the millions of taxpayer dollars our government is spending on efforts to protect the Delta and its native fish species, it is highly disturbing to see a federal agency knowingly violate river flow standards established to protect the fish,” said Allen Short of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority. “The USBR’s violation is particularly alarming at a time when so many Californians are working toward a comprehensive and balanced solution to the challenges in Delta.”

Under the 2006 Water Quality Control Plan, in the Spring the USBR should have provided 3,540 cubic feet of water per second at Vernalis. Instead, the average flow past Vernalis was just 3,092 cubic feet per second.

The USBR’s failure to meet the requirement is troubling in part because the federal government has taken the position that flow at Vernalis should be increased to benefit struggling salmon populations. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Interior, of which the USBR is a part, argued the State Water Resources Control Board should increase the flow standards at Vernalis.
Among a variety of other statements that year, federal officials said “San Joaquin Basin salmonid populations continue to decline” and “significant flow improvements are needed soon to protect these populations from extinction.”

In contrast with its public pronouncements, “it appears the Bureau of Reclamation ignored the rules and violated not only their permit, but the public trust,” Short noted.

Initially, federal officials did not publicly respond to the notice of violation. However, in a letter to the Delta Watermaster dated August 8, USBR Deputy Regional Director Pablo Arroyave sought to deflect responsibility, saying it was not the USBR’s job alone to meet the flow requirement at Vernalis.

Arroyaye also appeared to be appealing for sympathy, characterizing compliance with the standard as difficult for USBR because of “inherent complexities” involved in coordinating the actions of three upstream reservoir operators who face “operational constraints.”

Short was not moved by the appeal, “We all have our jobs to do, and unless we work together in the best interests of the Delta, solutions will remain elusive”

You can read the July 18 notice of violation online here:
The August 8 response from the USBR is available here:

The San Joaquin Tributaries Authority’s mission is to promote sound, environmentally responsible solutions to water supply management within a framework that recognizes the historic rights of its member agencies and the concerns of ratepayers. The members of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority include Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District, Oakdale Irrigation District, Merced Irrigation District, the City and County of San Francisco, and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.