The drought has revealed that all the government and hydrological science available is not going to put California water policy back together again. It is like submitting Humpty Dumpty to exhaustive scientific studies of the tensile strength of egg shells and the heights of walls. As long as the king and his men keep growing, it will just get worse.
The total effect of groundwater regulation and associated increased expenses is going to be to put Valley agriculture 100-percent in the pockets of irrigation and water districts and federal and state agencies with jurisdiction over surface waters. The template has been in place for decades, but this will cause even more concentration of land ownership in the hands even fewer, richer growers. This neo-feudal system of agribusiness is so overwhelming that no new ideas or leadership can be generated from within it. Perhaps the bill by the two congressmen from north of the Bay Area at least won't add to the destruction. -- blj
Vance Kennedy: No time to waste lining up water, economic study
BY VANCE KENNEDY
The great editorial “We must challenge the state’s water grab” (Opinion, Jan. 25) pointed out the need for a thorough evaluation of the likely effects of the State Water Resources Control Board’s plans to require much more of the local rivers to flow to the Bay. This is a huge red flag to our community and must not be ignored.
The cost to a combination of local agencies to hire a competent company to do a thorough study of the effects of the proposed water rules is minuscule compared to the certain damage it will do to our whole society for decades to come. Once the state board decision is made, it will be extremely costly in time and money to reverse.
Such studies cannot be done overnight. So preparations must start now. The Bee has suggested some possibilities (CSU Stanislaus, UOP, UC Merced), but there may be other organizations that specialize in such studies. We surely must have local people who can rapidly come up with the best consulting outfits and get started on fundraising.
If we go to state officials with only a cry that it will hurt us, as done in the past, they will ignore the plea. However, if we have incontestable data to support our position, we will be in a much better position to fight or, if necessary, to make minor compromises.
If the state water board is planning on a decision by November, as The Bee mentioned as a possibility, our report must have been completed long before then. I suggest we get the funding for such a study established by Feb. 20. Meanwhile, a separate group would be asked to find someone capable of doing the study. Target April 1 or earlier to start and Aug. 1 to complete the study.
Everybody believes public agencies cannot possibly act fast. If true, this might be the time for those wealthy individuals who have a lot at stake to jump in. In any case, this is an emergency. Someone to head up the effort should be selected as soon as possible. Additional comments to The Bee could be helpful.
Vance Kennedy is a retired U.S. Geographical Survey hydrologist who grows citrus in Modesto.
Drought law: Congress proposals could destroy San Francisco estuary and many species
By Jeanette Howard and Jon Rosenfield
Special to the Mercury News
The impacts of California's ongoing extreme drought are felt by everyone in the state. Some in Congress have proposed weakening environmental protections that would divert more of the water flowing to the San Francisco Bay. That would have serious implications for the largest estuary on the Pacific coast of North and South America and the fish, wildlife and people who rely on this unique ecosystem.
Fresh water that flows down our rivers through the Sacramento—San Joaquin River Delta to the bay and its estuary is the lifeblood for many species, such as our iconic Chinook salmon. In the ocean, salmon are consumed by orcas and other marine mammals, and some are harvested by commercial fishing fleets. San Francisco Bay and its estuary are nurseries for salmon, herring, halibut, sturgeon, Dungeness crab and other species that sustain fishing communities and sportfishing businesses from Monterey to Oregon.
If proposals to weaken environmental protections pass Congress and more water is diverted, our fragile estuary will continue to decline.
Few recognize that this ecosystem already is suffering from a decades-long man-made drought. In most years, the winter and spring months are drier than during any natural drought on record because of the extremely high levels of water diversion.
On average, more than half of the fresh water is diverted either upstream or at the southern end of the Delta, with more than 70 percent of it going to agriculture and the rest to cities and industry. When natural drought conditions are added on top of these long-term water diversions, this ecosystem receives an even smaller fraction of the water available.
In comparable estuaries, like the Chesapeake Bay, people are not diverting anywhere close to 50 percent of the water nature supplies. The best available science shows that the health of rivers is degraded when more than 20 percent of their water is diverted.
Recent data confirm this. Last year between February and June--especially sensitive months for native fish--only one-third of the runoff from the Central Valley made it to the San Francisco Bay. Not surprisingly, data released this month showed that the once common Delta smelt reached all-time low populations in 2014, and other species remained near record lows. Last year, juvenile Chinook salmon suffered high mortality as they migrated toward the ocean, jeopardizing all four unique local runs of this culturally and economically important fish.
Increasing water diversions can only make things worse. If we compound the decades-long man-made drought and the natural drought by diverting even more water, we're increasing the likelihood of multiple extinctions. That's what laws like the Endangered Species Act are
intended to prevent.
Some claim these laws are not effective because target species have not recovered. But the protections are intended only to prevent collapse and extinction, not to produce thriving ecosystems.
The future of our estuary is being discussed now as Congress considers drought legislation. Elected officials should look to the best available science when making decisions. Recent court decisions support the scientific basis for ecosystem protections that prevent even more dramatic reductions in flows to the bay.
Innovative approaches that reduce the impact of the drought on cities and farms are needed and possible. Our focus should be on improving how we use our limited water supply, not on shortsighted policies that divert even more water from the bay at the expense of native fish and ecosystems and those who depend upon them for their livelihood.
Jeanette Howard, PhD, is the lead scientist, freshwater, for The Nature Conservancy. Jon Rosenfield, PhD, is the conservation biologist for The Bay Institute. They wrote this for this newspaper.
PD Editorial: No more red herrings in water talks
The delta smelt is an easy target.
It’s small, no more than 3 inches long, and has no unusual features. Few people ever see one. Even anglers aren’t interested in this tiny fish native to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and protected by state and federal endangered species laws.
That makes it a great target in the PR wars over California water.
Central Valley growers and their allies rarely miss an opportunity to blame their water woes on the smelt and to disparage the very notion of protecting it from extinction.
Substitute “salmon” for “smelt” and try making the case for giving up on an endangered species to secure a water supply for growers who switched from crops like lettuce and tomatoes that can be fallowed in times of drought to almond orchards that need continuous irrigation.
You can see why the growers and their allies talk almost exclusively about smelt.
The smelt is a marker species, a barometer of the health of the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas and the backbone of the sport and commercial salmon fishing industry in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. State officials say the smelt population is at its lowest level in 50 years of monitoring, and stakeholders are bracing for weak salmon numbers after three drought years.
“Without a healthy Bay-Delta system, there is no salmon fishing,” said Barry Nelson of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t bite on the smelt vs. farmers argument. Last week, the justices rejected an appeal from the Westlands and Metropolitan water districts, among others, seeking to overturn limits on pumping water from the Delta into canals serving Central Valley growers and Southern California cities.
Those limits were put in place to protect the smelt as well as several species of salmon that migrate through the Delta on a round-trip between their spawning grounds in Northern California and the Pacific Ocean.
The pumping limits withstood scrutiny from the National Academy of Sciences and the federal courts, but look for a yet another challenge in the new Congress.
House members from the Central Valley are again sponsoring legislation to waive the Endangered Species Act as it relates to the delta smelt.
But the problem isn’t a tiny endangered fish. It’s a lack of water as the state enters what’s shaping up as a fourth drought year. The Sierra snowpack, the primary source of water for the Delta and the delivery system serving the Central Valley and Southern California, is just 36 percent of normal. There hasn’t been any significant precipitation in the past month, and there is none in the forecast.
A competing bill, co-sponsored by Democrats Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman as well as several other House members from Northern and Southern California, offers a more productive response to the water shortage.
Their bill would create a secured loan program and grants for water recycling, groundwater management and water infrastructure projects. It also would modernize water supply operations at dams managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and promote drought coordination at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior.
Last year, most of the congressional action took place behind closed doors, with only Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the Central Valley congressmen at the table. This year, the process needs to come out into the open.
The Huffman-Thompson bill deserves a fair hearing. Let’s hope it doesn’t get drowned in unfounded claims about the delta smelt.