Fishery plans aim to add flexibility to water system

Issue Date: October 30, 2019
By Christine Souza

In an action that influences how water will move through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, federal fisheries agencies have issued new biological opinions to guide operation of federal and state water projects. Representatives of farmers and water districts said the opinions released last week promise to enhance the flexibility of the California water system.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries determined that the proposed long-term operations of the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project do not jeopardize the continued existence of protected salmon and delta smelt in the bay-delta watershed.

In issuing the opinions, the fishery agencies outlined habitat-management measures in the delta and operational criteria for the water projects to avoid harm to the protected species.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson said the biological opinions enhance prior protection for fish while adjusting operation of water projects to improve water supplies.

"Everyone wants to see endangered fish recover," Johansson said. "But the methods of the past haven't worked. Doubling down on those failed methods would make no sense. It's time to try something new, and we're satisfied that the career scientists at the federal agencies have taken the time they need to create well-thought-out plans that reflect advances in knowledge acquired during the past 10 years."

The new biological opinions replace opinions issued in 2008 and 2009.

Johansson said the new opinions can lead to progress in restoring balance to California water management.

"We expect these new biological opinions to approach fishery recovery through a variety of tactics, including habitat restoration, improved science, and flexibility in dedicating enough water at the right time to maximize fishery benefits and improve water deliveries to people," he said.

While the CVP and SWP have operated to standards outlined in the previous biological opinions, "a lot has changed in a decade," according to Ernest Conant, regional director for the CVP's operator, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

"We have a plan that is much better for fish, farms and communities than our current operations. The proposed plan includes an estimated $1.5 billion investment to support endangered fish over the next 10 years," Conant said.

The bureau said the plan incorporates improved delta operations through real-time, adaptive management informed by updated science and investments in hatcheries to assist in recovery of the delta smelt and other species.

In addition, Conant said, the plan includes operations that increase the cold-water pool and improve cold-water management at Lake Shasta, along with a $14 million investment to accelerate work to reintroduce winter-run chinook salmon in the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

"The bureau has agreed to improve temperature management, especially in the good water years, to help protect winter run salmon similar to the good runs we're having right now," NOAA Fisheries Regional Director Barry Thom said. "They also have, in the dry and drought year times, non-flow and flow actions that they'll take to help mitigate and offset some of that risk."

The president of the Kern County Water Agency board of directors, Ted Page, said the use of real-time monitoring will allow the water projects to target water supplies to meet fishery needs.

"This new approach is expected to provide better protection for fish, while improving water supply reliability for Californians," Page said, describing that as an improvement from past efforts that set specific calendar dates for water releases, which might or might not coincide with periods when delta fish species need additional water.

In the Sacramento Valley, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District General Manager Thaddeus Bettner said GCID and other Sacramento River settlement contractors would continue working with federal agencies on fishery restoration, consistent with the new biological opinions.

"These collaborative efforts, coupled with other changes to the Bureau of Reclamation's proposed CVP operations, will improve conditions both for endangered fish and water supply reliability in the Sacramento Valley," Bettner said.

California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade said the opinions "will play a critical role" in helping implement Gov. Gavin Newsom's voluntary agreements for flows in delta tributaries, which Wade said "will provide more water for environmental purposes, funds to pay for habitat improvement projects and flexibility for water users."

But environmental organizations criticized the biological opinions, with the Natural Resources Defense Council saying they were "almost certain to significantly weaken and/or eliminate existing federal protections for salmon and other endangered species."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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