Water supplies shrink as officials act to protect fish
By Kate Campbell
Curtailed water transfers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have so far translated into an estimated loss of more than 700,000 acre-feet of water that otherwise would have been stored for future use by California farms and families. State and federal officials said last week cutting back the pumps to protect delta smelt, which in past weeks have been drawn into the water transfer equipment, underscores the need for extensive habitat improvements and a new water conveyance system around the delta.
They conceded that immediate fixes and interim measures to address the current conflict are few, although they did ease the pumping restrictions later in the week.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it is joining state agencies in discussions about potential alternatives to help simultaneously meet the needs of fish and water users during what is shaping up to be a dry year. The federal agency also re-emphasized its commitment to move forward with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a 50-year, multi-species habitat conservation plan.
Calling last week's curtailment a "crisis," officials said about 75 percent of the year's "incidental take" of adult delta smelt allowed under the Endangered Species Act has already occurred, with nearly two months left before the period of concern for the fish ends.
"These ongoing crises will continue to reveal themselves until we fundamentally change the way we manage the delta," Mark Cowin of the California Department of Water Resources told reporters during a media briefing last week. "We need to be looking at this (around-delta conveyance system and habitat restoration) as a long-term solution so six years from now, somebody is not looking back at today's headlines and asking, 'Why didn't they do anything?'"
Because hydrologic conditions since mid-January have been dry and the water transfer pumps have been cut back, the Fresno-based Westlands Water District advised farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley to anticipate no more than a 20 percent contract-water allocation for the upcoming crop season.
"This notice is not intended to suggest that a 20 percent allocation is either reasonable or acceptable," Westlands officials said.
During the past several weeks, water from the delta originally destined for farms, homes and businesses has instead flowed to the ocean in an effort to comply with the ESA. The cutback at the pumps is intended to avoid hitting the incidental take limit for delta smelt. By last week, more than 228 adult fish had been lost. Exceeding the incidental take limit of 305 delta smelt would trigger a full shutdown of the pumps until the fish have moved to other locations.
The California Farm Water Coalition said the loss of water for storage in recent weeks represented about 13,000 lost farm jobs, $873 million in lost crop production and a potential economic loss to the state of about $2.2 billion this year.
"This redirection of water could last through March, with water losses escalating every day," said coalition Executive Director Mike Wade. "Sadly, these regulations aren't working to protect the fish they were intended to help. It's time we take a sensible look at how we provide for the ecosystem while at the same time supporting California farms, jobs and people, and our nation's food supply."
Experts say the most recent cutbacks in water transfers from the delta to storage in San Luis Reservoir were prompted when delta smelt made an early appearance near the pumps at a traditional time of active pumping, most likely because heavy December storms sent a pulse of turbid runoff down the Sacramento River, signaling the fish to migrate for spawning.
Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation director of water resources, noted that chronic interruptions in securing water supplies are the "exact reason new and increased water storage is needed in California. Without new storage, agriculture, and California's economy, get caught in the laws and the science."
With warmer, more unpredictable precipitation and increasing species protections, none of which were envisioned when the Central Valley Project and State Water Project were built, Merkley said greater storage capacity would build much-needed flexibility into the water supply system.
"The dry weather we've had this winter shows that we cannot continue to miss out on opportunities to store water when it's available," he said.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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