If you were seriously ill with a life-threatening disease, you would seek help from a doctor. But if that doctor recommended treating you for noxious vapors or bleeding you with leeches, you would be horrified. We go to the doctor for the latest in medical care, not outdated treatments from the medieval period.

Yet when it comes to California's greatest natural treasure, the estuary of the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the State of California is using leeches to try to cure the estuary's ills.

Many native fish species throughout the Bay are at record or near-record lows and some Delta species are in imminent danger of extinction. Toxic algae blooms and massive infestations of weeds are taking over the Delta.

More than 50 percent of vitally important freshwater flows are diverted before reaching the Bay, shifting flow patterns throughout the Bay and Delta and affecting drinking water sources for some Bay Area municipalities.

As a patient, the Bay-Delta Estuary is considered critically ill.

We know what needs to be done. The most important action is to immediately restore the freshwater flows that support a thriving natural community of fish and wildlife and safeguard our water quality.

These flows are regulated through the State Water Resources Control Board's Water Quality Control Plan, which has not been substantively updated in more than 20 years.


Many scientific studies from recent years, including the State Water Resources Control Board's own Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem in 2010, have concluded that much more flow is needed to bring the estuary back to life and health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Legislature, and the state board itself have acknowledged the urgent need to update these protective flow standards.

Yet, somehow, we are still using the standards developed more than 20 years ago to manage the estuary. The state board is required by law to update the Water Quality Control Plan every three years, yet the current update has taken more than six years and is not projected to be completed until 2018. This is not quality health care for the Bay-Delta, this is medical malpractice.

In the wake of the drought, there is a renewed push for more projects to capture and divert even more water from the estuary, including Gov. Jerry Brown's Delta twin tunnels project. The state board is currently preparing to review the request for change in water rights by the twin tunnel proponents.

The board will have to use the outdated standards, a patchwork of scientific studies, and arguments made by both supporters and opponents to make the decision of whether or not to issue permits.

Board staff have said that once the Water Quality Control Plan is updated, the new standards will apply to any issued twin tunnels permits. But no one believes that more stringent standards will be applied to the tunnels after finances are committed and construction begins.

It makes no sense to proceed on a $17 billion project -- one of the largest water infrastructure projects in California's history -- before updating the regulatory standards that will apply to the project.

But that is exactly what the state board is doing, under great political pressure. Instead of stabilizing the patient's health and treating the underlying causes of symptoms, this proposal increases the patient's risk of collapse.

It is time for the doctor to use the latest methods to cure the ill Bay-Delta now, instead of continuing to allow the patient's lifeblood to tragically ebb away.

Mary N. Piepho is a member of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.