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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Effects of Flow Diversions on Water and Habitat Quality: Examples from California's Highly Manipulated Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta


We use selected monitoring data to illustrate how localized water diversions from seasonal barriers, gate operations, and export pumps alter water quality across the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (California). Dynamics of water-quality variability are complex because the Delta is a mixing zone of water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, agricultural return water, and the San Francisco Estuary. Each source has distinct water-quality characteristics, and the contribution of each source varies in response to natural hydrologic variability and water diversions. We use simulations with a tidal hydrodynamic model to reveal how three diversion events, as case studies, influence water quality through their alteration of Delta-wide water circulation patterns and flushing time. Reduction of export pumping decreases the proportion of Sacramento- to San Joaquin-derived fresh water in the central Delta, leading to rapid increases in salinity. Delta Cross Channel gate operations control salinity in the western Delta and alter the freshwater source distribution in the central Delta. Removal of the head of Old River barrier, in autumn, increases the flushing time of the Stockton Ship Channel from days to weeks, contributing to a depletion of dissolved oxygen. Each shift in water quality has implications either for habitat quality or municipal drinking water, illustrating the importance of a systems view to anticipate the suite of changes induced by flow manipulations, and to minimize the conflicts inherent in allocations of scarce resources to meet multiple objectives.

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