Young salmon are raised at a hatchery on the banks of the San Joaquin River until the obstacles on the river are cleared so they can migrate on their own. Gary Kazanjian AP
Young salmon are raised at a hatchery on the banks of the San Joaquin River until the obstacles on the river are cleared so they can migrate on their own. Gary Kazanjian AP


A new approach to protecting rivers

By Brian Gray,, Leon Szeptycki And and Buzz Thompson

Special to The Bee

November 17, 2017 01:00 PM

California’s native freshwater fish – salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and others – continue to decline, and regulations to reverse this trend have fanned controversy. A new approach to environmental stewardship is needed.

We should start by granting the environment a water right, as detailed in a new report we helped write for the Public Policy Institute of California.


The way California manages water for environmental purposes isn’t working for anyone. Environmental advocates argue that state and federal regulators have set water quality and flow standards that do not adequately protect fish and wildlife, and have not enforced these requirements when they are most needed. Farm and urban interests claim that these regulations have been ineffective and cause unnecessary economic harm. Water users also face cuts in their supplies if regulators conclude that more water is needed to support struggling fish populations.

We propose an approach that integrates environmental uses into the existing water rights system. The goals of this reform are to increase efficiency and flexibility and enhance certainty for all water users.

Under our proposal, local water managers, water users and environmental and fishing groups would negotiate watershed ecosystem plans that determine how much water is needed to ensure the ecological integrity of a river system. This volume of water, which would vary from wet to dry years, would become the water budget for that river. This water budget would focus on overall ecological health rather than the current narrower emphasis on tracking individual endangered species.

To be most effective, the water budget must be like a water right. This includes storing ecosystem water in reservoirs or groundwater basins, trading it with other water rights holders and allowing managers to increase their water budgets through purchases, donations and exchanges.

We recommend that an independent trustee manage each watershed’s water budget with oversight by the State Water Board. The volume of ecosystem water should be set for at least 10 years.

Several western states and Australia use something like these water budgets already. California has taken small steps toward this approach with agreements on Putah Creek and the Yuba River. Also, the State Water Board has proposed designating blocks of water to support ecological uses in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems, though without the management flexibility we recommend.

To encourage parties to negotiate water budgets, the Legislature should grant authority to administer water set aside under water quality and endangered species laws as an environmental water right and outline the powers and responsibilities of ecological stewardship trustees.

California’s river systems are fragile and ill-prepared for future droughts and a warming climate. We have a window of opportunity to adopt policies that encourage more creative and effective management.

Brian Gray is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and professor emeritus at UC Hastings and can be contacted at

Leon Szeptycki is director of Water in the West and as professor at Stanford University and can be contacted at

Buzz Thompson is the Robert E. Paradise professor in natural resources law at Stanford Law School and can be contacted at