August 4, 2013

Delta Water Summit Elicits Many Questions

Part 1
Big Crowd Attends Summit

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor
And Laurie Greene, Associate Editor
A serious and vocal crowd of about 700 people representing farmers, farmworkers, others who derive their income from farming and Central Valley citizens who wanted to know more about Delta and water availability, packed the Satellite Student Union today, at California State University Fresno for the Delta Water Summit.

Mario Santoyo

The Delta Water Summit, organized by Mario Santoyo, Executive Director of the Latino Water Coalition, brought invited local and national elected officials, and representatives of California Water Agencies to answer questions from moderators and the public.

Here are some highlights of the three-hour summit.

The first panel, moderate by Ray Appleton, talk show host of KMJ, focused on the roles of water agencies regarding the challenges and expectations of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP).

John Coleman
John Coleman, Vice President, Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), said everyone in the room would agree that the water system in California is failing and we need to take responsibility for BDCP. And hopefully, the Water Bond to help fund BDCP will be on the ballot in 2014 such that we can fix the broken system so future generations will benefit.

Tom Birmingham, General Manager, Westlands Water District, spoke about the stressors in the Delta that are being blamed on farmers south of the Delta. Birmingham said, “I do not want to suggest that the operation of existing water projects are not affecting the species in the Delta. But there are numerous factors that are affecting the abundance of those species.”

Tom Birmingham
Birmingham noted that a few years ago, the Public Policy Institute of California issued a report stating: If you were to shut the two major water projects down entirely, quit diverting water upstream, quit pumping water out of the Delta, there is still more than a 50 percent chance that the species in the Delta which are currently at risk, would still go extinct.

“To suggest that what we have done over the course of the last 30 years in trying to protect these species is working, is absolutely nuts, as the species have continued to decline,” said Birmingham. “And the whole purpose of the BDCP is to take a different approach. Rather than focusing on species-by-species restrictions or regulations, some of which conflict with one another. The purpose of the BDCP is to take a more holistic approach, take an ecosystem approach, to try something different in protecting the species. All the studies that have been done to date suggest that if we are going to save species in the Delta, and if we are going to preserve the economy of California, we have got to do this project,” he said.

Brent Walthall

Brent Walthall, Assistant General Manager of the Kern County Water Agency, based in Bakersfield, spoke about the stressors in the Delta and how the BDCP may help to fix these. “When the BDCP first started, it looked only at the flow of the water and how the operations of the state and federal projects worked,” Walthall said. “But there are a lot of stressors in the Delta, and we do not handle them well—or at all. And the reason is that the regulatory agencies are charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on a project-by-project basis.”

“The regulatory agencies do not get to look at the ecosystem as a whole and decide what is wrong. They only get to look at the permits for a specific project and decide how to operate that one project, whether it’s a Federal Project, or a State Water Project,” Walthall said. “One of the unique aspects of the BDCP is that it can look at all the other stressors, and again, there are a lot of them. The conservation measures in the BDCP have 22 suggestions. Only one focuses on pumping; the other 21 address all the other stressors.”

“Biologists think these stressors are all significant,” Wathall continued, “but we do not have a high level of understanding; however, we are learning that they are quite important. For example, one important stressor is predation of non-native fish on native species. As a particularly impactful example, the non-native bass species are predators on the Delta Smelt and the out-migrating salmon after spawning. Apparently salmon is the favorite food of the bass species. And we have seen on the San Joaquin River side of the Delta, that as much as 90 percent of the salmon travelling on their way to the ocean are eaten before they get there, and we have done nothing to address this.”

“Neither the state nor the federal water projects have ever even come close to that kind of percentage,” said Wathall. “Our percentages are often only 12 to 15 percent.”

“If we can identify these other stressors, we can go a long way to solving the environmental problem and free up the water system to operate more as it was designed to do,” Wathall said.
Ron Jacobsma
On the question of how the BDCP would impact additional storage south of the Delta, Ron Jacobsma, General Manager, Friant Water Authority, noted that one of the projects that he and others have been following closely for more than a decade, is the Temperance Flat Reservoir, which would constructed behind Friant Dam and upriver on the San Joaquin. This would allow us to take advantage of the flood flows we periodically get. And when they come, they come big. In 2010/2011, we had close to one million acre-feet of floodwaters released over the Friant Dam into the San Joaquin River, and we could have really used some of that water. In the last two years we have been at 40 percent of adequate supply.

Jacobsma said, “The Friant Water Authority manages 1.8 million acre-feet with a 520,000 acre-foot-reservoir (Millerton Lake), and we are looking at how we can pull additional yields from that project. If you build a million-plus acre-foot-reservoir, the yield is about 150,000 acre-feet. That’s a key water supply because that’s essentially what we commit to environment through our restoration program downriver.”

“But the $2-3 billion cost of Temperance Flat water diverted for agricultural use does not work too well by itself,” Jacobsma continued. “But if we could get the Delta reliability back, the situation would change. Moving vast amounts of wet-year water and running out of storage south of the Delta, in the case of Temperance Flat, would be more feasible. In this way, we could integrate that storage facility through ground water. Exchanges which could potentially double the yield offer greater flexibility and provide water quality benefits to urban agencies, suddenly make the whole big monetary gulp for a little sip of benefits works a lot better. You must take advantage of the wet year flows.”

Plus there is the benefit to PG&E, to investing in the hydroelectric potential of the dam that could be produced cheaply.

Appleton then asked Jacobsma if the Temperance Flat would ever get built.

Jacobsma replied, “What we need to assess immediately, and the Bureau of Reclamation is on track to do so a year from now, is determine if the construction of Temperance Flat is even feasible. That will signal whether the project can be built. Then we have to figure out what the BDCP looks like. Both of these projects realistically, with litigation and other issues, are most likely 10-15 years out. But if we do not start taking steps now, then they never will happen.”

John Colemanwith ACWA noted that the BDCP is an evolving process and his agency wants it to be successful. “And increased storage is a very important part of the BDCP. But what would be the value of adding the additional storage?”

“If you were to look at the last 20 years, including wet years, we have not been able to take advantage of the existing storage,” Coleman said. “We could build a reservoir and flood the Sacramento Valley, and we could build all sorts of dams in the San Joaquin Valley for surface storage. But if you look at the history of the last two decades, there have been many wet years when the San Luis Reservoir did not fill. Unless we have the ability to move water from the Sacramento River system, across the Delta, and to the pumps, there is no additional value of storage south of the Delta. With the BDCP, new storage will be incredibly important. In November and December of 2012, there was a lot of water in the system, but we could not pump it because of restrictions imposed by the biological opinion for the protection of the Delta Smelt.

What do Next Year?

In the minds of most people at the Summit was what will happen next year.

Federal water districts such as Westlands, San Luis, Panoche and many other water service contractors south of the Delta have sustained a lot of damage from reduced water allocations. These districts span from Tracy all the way to Kettleman City, and they are all under the pressure of possible zero water allocations.

In terms of what to do next year if adequate rain does not happen, Birmingham predicted that the allocation could be zero, even if there is average rainfall across California. “It’s very likely that the final allocation may be very low, anywhere from zero to 10 percent, maybe 15 percent, which would be a repeat of what we saw in 2009,” Birmingham said. “Other than praying for heavy precipitation and snowfall, particularly in the San Joaquin River watershed, so that we can offset restrictions and biological opinions, I just do not know what can be done.

Over the course of time, we have utilized all the mechanisms available, so that today, there is very little flexibility concerning how we can get water to farmers on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Public Comments:

Manual Cunha, with Charlie Waters 
In the audience, Charlie Waters, with FFA Farm Labor Services Inc., asked the big question:  “At some point, we must make a realistic decision. Will it be man or fish? We can both exist, but we need farming to survive, and we need the water to farm,” Waters noted.

Waters then commented on the sewage flowing into the Delta from Sacramento and Stockton. “Their excuse in not cleaning up is that it’s too expensive. Come on now, we need to get tough. We need that water for farming and everything else.”

Phil Larson
Phil Larson, Fresno County Board of Supervisor, District One, commented, “We need to go to the top to deal with the biological opinion. In March, I went to Washington, D.C. and visited with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and they stated to our California Association of Wine Grape Growers group that they were ‘tweaking the Endangered Species Act so it will be better for you in California’,” Larson said. “And I told them that the biggest stressor we have in California is the ESA, and problem is when you start tweaking it in D.C., it can become more of a problem. We all need to work with our legislators to explain that to them.”

We'll post more coverage on the Summit over the next two days.