• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal


Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.

A New Threat to California’s Rivers:  Will the Rush to Develop Our Newest Water Source Destroy More Streams?

Owens River (free-flowing section), near Big Pine, California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The first plans implementing California’s landmark groundwater law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act or SGMA, have been submitted to the California Department of Water Resources.  They are for portions of the state where groundwater is “critically over-drafted,” a situation the plans are supposed to reverse. Some of the plans call for diverting flood and seasonally high streamflows to groundwater storage as a means to comply with SGMA while allowing the maximum amount of irrigated and animal agriculture to continue.

Big Ag’s insatiable thirst is the #1 reason most California’s groundwater basins are critically over drafted or at risk for critical over-draft. Big Ag is also the reason so many California streams are dewatered much of the year. Now, Big Ag and the water agencies that do its water will want to also divert streamflow during the winter wet season. For folks who believe that any water “diverted” to the ocean is wasted water, winter storm and snow-melt high flows have become the target.

While streams need periodic flood flows in order to remain healthy, hundreds of scientific streamflow assessments confirm that, if done properly, some portion of storm and seasonal peak flows can be diverted to groundwater storage in most years without further damaging stream ecosystems. To properly determine the safe amount, however, requires consideration of robust, year-around streamflow criteria.

The State Water Board’s California Water Quality Monitoring Council is coordinating an effort with universities and other agencies to develop streamflow criteria for all California streams. The Council’s Environmental Flows Workgroup has also developed or is developing Interim Regional Streamflow Criteria for use until stream-specific flow assessments can be completed.

Both the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Board now have programs to facilitate and regulate the diversion of flood and seasonally high streamflows to groundwater storage. Unfortunately, neither DWR’s Flood Mar nor the State Water Board’s Water Rights for Groundwater Recharge require consideration of year-around streamflow criteria. Instead Flood Mar encourages comparing “surface hydrologic models to determine their relative strengths and weaknesses, including the ability to reproduce streamflow, snowpack, soil moisture, and other relevant hydrologic variables…” The State Water Board requires only that those seeking temporary water rights to capture flood flows for groundwater storage indicate on their application that they have consulted with local Department of Fish & Wildlife officials and that those officials did not have concerns.

Both approaches are inadequate: DWR focuses only on reliable water supply with no direction to proponents to consider streamflow needs; the Water Board relies on undocumented consultations with local DFW staff who may or may not understand stream ecosystem flow needs.

Year-around regional and stream-specific flow criteria are the proper tool to determine the portion of flood and seasonally high flows that can be safely taken from our streams for groundwater storage. That tool is now available in the form of Interim Regional and Stream-Specific flow criteria. DWR and the State Water Board should embrace flow criteria and require their consideration in all applications to divert high flows to groundwater storage. To do less will surely result in more damage to California’s stream ecosystems.

In 1989 the California legislature ordered the Director of Fish and Game to “prepare proposed streamflow requirements” for those California streams “for which minimum flow levels need to be established in order to assure the continued viability of stream-related fish and wildlife resources” (Public Resources Code Division 10).Thirty years later only eight have been completed. Now the Environmental Flows Workgroup offers a streamlined approach to streamflow assessment. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the agencies working to develop California’s newest water supply will require their use. For that to happen, the California legislature might need to weigh in.  

This column first appeared in The Maven’s Notebook.

More articles by:

Felice Pace is a longtime environmental activist in northern California. You can find his writings online at Bearitude in Black.

June 02, 2020
Zoltan Grossman
Deploying Federal Troops in a War at Home Would Make a Bad Situation Worse
Nicholas Buccola
Amy Cooper is Christian Cooper’s Lost, Younger Sister 
Manuel García, Jr.
Global Warming is Nuclear War
Patrick Cockburn
An Unavoidable Recognition of Failure: Trump’s Withdrawal From Afghanistan
John Feffer
Is It Time to Boycott the USA?
Kathy Kelly
Beating Swords to Plowshares
Lawrence Davidson
U.S. Urban Riots Revisited
Sam Pizzigati
“Failed State” Status Here We Come
Ron Jacobs
In Defense of Antifa
Cesar Chelala
Bolsonaro and Trump: Separated at Birth
George Wuerthner
The BLM’s License to Destroy Sagebrush Ecosystems
Danny Antonelli
The Absurdity of Hope
Binoy Kampmark
Sinister Flatulence: Trump Versus Twitter
John Stanton
How Much Violence and Destruction is Enough for Depraved American Leaders and Their Subjects?
Richard C. Gross
The Enemy Within
Thomas Knapp
Trump’s “Free Speech:” Doctrine: Never, Ever, Ever Mention He’s a Liar
John W. Whitehead
This Is Not a Revolution. It’s a Blueprint for Locking Down the Nation
June 01, 2020
Joshua Frank
It’s a Class War Now Too
Richard D. Wolff
Why the Neoliberal Agenda is a Failure at Fighting Coronavirus
Henry Giroux
Racial Domestic Terrorism and the Legacy of State Violence
Ron Jacobs
The Second Longest War in the United States
Kanishka Chowdhury
The Return of the “Outside Agitator”
Lee Hall
“You Loot; We Shoot”
Dave Lindorff
Eruptions of Rage
Jake Johnston
An Impending Crisis: COVID-19 in Haiti, Ongoing Instability, and the Dangers of Continued U.S. Deportations
Nick Pemberton
What is Capitalism?
Linda G. Ford
“Do Not Resuscitate”: My Experience with Hospice, Inc.
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
Who Are the Secret Puppet-Masters Behind Trump’s War on Iran?
Manuel García, Jr.
A Simple Model for Global Warming
Howard Lisnoff
Is the Pandemic Creating a Resurgence of Unionism? 
Frances Madeson
Federal Prisons Should Not be Death Chambers
Hayley Brown – Dean Baker
The Impact of Upward Redistribution on Social Security Solvency
Raúl Carrillo
We Need a Public Option for Banking
Kathy Kelly
Our Disaster: Why the United States Bears Responsibility for Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis
Sonali Kolhatkar
An Open Letter to Joe Biden on Race
Scott Owen
On Sheep, Shepherds, Wolves and Other Political Creatures
John Kendall Hawkins
All Night Jazz All The Time
Weekend Edition
May 29, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Tim Wise
Protest, Uprisings, and Race War
Nick Pemberton
White Supremacy is the Virus; Police are the Vector
T.J. Coles
What’s NATO Up to These Days? Provoking Russia, Draining Healthcare Budgets and Protecting Its Own from COVID
Benjamin Dangl
Bibles at the Barricades: How the Right Seized Power in Bolivia
Kevin Alexander Gray - Jeffrey St. Clair - JoAnn Wypijewski
There is No Peace: an Incitement to Justice
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Few Good Sadists
Jeff Mackler
The Plague of Racist Cop Murders: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Joshua Frank
In Search of a Lost Socialism