Fighting for a Healthy San Francisco Bay-Delta

The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the country’s top tourist destinations. People from around the world come to meander across the Golden Gate Bridge and eat at San Francisco’s fantastic water-front restaurants. What most people can’t tell from looking at the Bay’s glistening waters is that a troubled ecosystem lies below.

The San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary, the largest estuary on the west coast of the United States, is in a state of decline, and several species are careening toward extinction. Over the last two years, we’ve lost over 95 percent of the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon that swim through the San Francisco Bay and into the Sacramento River to spawn. Because this iconic fish usually only lives for three years, similar losses in 2016 could cause extinction. Smaller fish that live in the estuary year round are also in trouble. Delta smelt and longfin smelt are at record low abundances, and scientists fear they could cease to exist in the wild. These tiny smelt, which used to be some of the most abundant fish in the region, are considered indicator species—their downward spiral means that the Bay-Delta estuary isn’t a healthy place for the dozens of other native species that call it home.

Chinook Salmon, © Dave Bickford

With the estuary that is the heart and soul of the San Francisco Bay Area at risk, you would think state and federal officials would be racing to fix the problems and safeguard this national treasure. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Rather than working to protect the Bay-Delta estuary and avoid the extinction of native species like the Delta smelt, the California State Water Resources Control Board has been waiving water quality standards to divert water away from the ecosystem to help special interests. From 2014 through 2015, the State Board waived and weakened standards to allow for the diversion of about 1.35 million acre-feet of water (more than twice the amount of annual water use in Los Angeles) that should have helped protect Delta fish, wildlife and ecosystems. And just last week, the California Board revised flow requirements in the lower San Joaquin River that are intended to protect fish and wildlife. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to review and approve such radical changes to water quality standards, but it never reviewed or approved these waivers.

We’re now at risk of losing species like the winter-run Chinook salmon and Delta smelt forever. Other agencies have had to compensate for the State Board and EPA’s inaction in 2016. This year, because state and federal agencies failed to adequately protect salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and Bay-Delta during the drought, fishery managers imposed severe restrictions on the salmon fishery

The Bay-Delta ecosystem just can’t take this kind of abuse any longer. That’s why Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Bay Institute have filed a lawsuit against the EPA in federal court in San Francisco. The lawsuit alleges that the EPA has violated the Clean Water Act by failing to review the State Board’s changes to California’s water quality standards that are supposed to protect water quality and wildlife in the Bay-Delta. Through this lawsuit, we hope to stop the State Board from continually waiving and weakening water quality standards and to make sure the State Board and EPA are working to safeguard California’s native creatures for future generations.

Defenders in California

A stunning mosaic of ecosystems, California is home to millions of wild birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and insects that need our help. Defenders is working to ensure a lasting future for all the wildlife of the Golden State.

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