Delta Water Summit Coverage

Delta Water Summit Coverage

August 5, 2013

Part 2

Delta Water Summit

Michael Connor Gives His Take

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor

Michael Connor,  Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of

Michael Conner who heads up the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation noted that his bureau is engaging with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Fish and Wildlife Service on short term help for water users.

“We are looking at ways where we can maintain the protected species, but to do it in a way that lessons the impact on water suppliers,” Connor said before 700 attendees at the Delta Water Summit at California Sate University Fresno on Saturday.  “We need to have this conversation because of the seriousness of the situation that is immediately before us.”

Connor said that he met with farmers in the valley the day before the summit. “It’s very important to do that to understand the urgency,” he noted. “Many of the farmers noted that they have some flexibility that may enable them to make it through the next few years. But what I was really struck by was their concern about their neighbors who do not have the flexibility to keep going.  The farmers noted that if their neighbors go out of production, then their community is at risk. It’s very sobering and necessary to be on the ground.”

Conner noted the Bureau moved a lot of water around this year to supplement farmers with their water needs, and we expect to do similar actions this coming water year. “We will try and broaden the scope of our actions and see what we can do to move more water for growers south of the Delta,” Connor said.

“We want to get the south of the Delta allocations as high as possible and then take supplemental water from other areas and make it available. This is becoming a more serious issue than it was in 2009,” said Connor.

Connor commented that he "wants to engage the water contractors, who we see as partners, and we need to move water that they secure between themselves. We need to do it with as little red tape as possible. We need to continue to act and even put in place more mechanisms to act at the urgency the current situation calls for.”

Connor noted that the Bureau is working hand in hand as partners with the water contractors in the state. “We know that the current water system in the state is unsustainable, and we need the BDCP to be successful."

The 2013 Delta Water Summit crowd listens.

The possibility that 2014 will be worse than 2009 in terms of water allocations south of the Delta is creating great concern regarding massive unemployment of farm workers.  It could also create more food lines in West Side towns. Connor noted that as a federal official, he needs to work with a broader set of agencies and is prepared to provide aid to the workers in this situation, similar to 2009.

“We need to take this discussion back to officials in Washington D.C., and I am committed to doing that,” he said. “The actions we want to take right now are in the areas of trying to get as much water as we can for the south of the Delta users to move forward. This is a serious situation, and we want to be in a position where we can keep as many folks employed and as many acres in production as we can."

Conner responded to a question from the audience on the possibility of a two-year moratorium on water reductions to south of Delta farmers, as the Bureau and U.S. Fish and Wildlife figure out the Delta Smelt’s habitat and biology.

Conner answered, "We maintain compliance both in water quality standards and the Endangered Species Act. So there is not the ability to call a two-year moratorium, as we need to maintain protection of the fish, whether they are Delta Smelt with the biological opinion or several species of salmon that are affected by many issues in the Delta."

“But I do agree that we need a whole lot more, and better information. We are continuing to try and improve how we apply the ESA instead of blanket rules, such as 'you can’t pump this much during this time.' We need to know where the fish are. Can we maintain levels of pumping and not have blanket rules that control the pumps?” Connor asked. “Instead, we must base decisions on a dynamic assessment of the situation. We would improve with respect to our understanding of turbidity and the location of the smelt. We are trying to do the same thing with respect to salmon and when those fish come through."

“We are even looking at the “take” statements. How do we recalculate how much take is viable and still maintain the overall population of the species? All of this must be on the table,” Connor said.

Birmingham Sets Acree Straight

Earlier in the day, following a statement by Chris Acree, Executive Director of Revive the San Joaquin, in which he said that fish should have high priority in the Delta, Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District stated,

Tom Birmingham,  General Manager, Westlands Water

“Chris, you are just wrong; you are absolutely wrong. The way that the Endangered Species Act is being applied today gives absolutely no consideration to the effects it has on human beings,” Birmingham said. “In 1973, when the ESA was passed, I cannot imagine one member of Congress who would have said, 'We are going to put people in a food line, because we want to protect a fish is smaller than my little finger.'"

“In fact, immediately after the ESA was enacted, a fish known as the snail darter was preventing the construction of Tellico Dam in Tennessee, on the Little Tennessee River. But after a battle, Congress eventually exempted the Tellico dam from the ESA,” Birmingham said.

Birmingham noted that, "protecting these fish is a very laudable goal, and I would agree with you, it doesn’t have to be fish vs. people, but the human species must be considered a part of the evaluation."