Breaking News: Contracted Contractual Water Deliveries Could Plummet

Breaking News: 

Promised Water Deliveries Could Plummet

Delta Smelt Among Many Reasons for Pumping Constraints

By Emily McKay Johnson, Associate Editor

Farmers in the federal water districts of Fresno and Kings Counties were granted only five percent of their contracted water this year; yet they are at risk of getting even less due to pumping constraints. Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a Los Banos-based federal water district explained, “The original forecast had full pumping in June, July, August, and September.

“Because of the temperature constraints and because of the water quality standards,” Peltier stated, “we’ve been operating only one or two pumps. There’s just not enough water flowing south to meet the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (Reclamation) obligations to the exchange contractors, the [wildlife] refuges and the urban agencies, along with the 5% allocation to the ag services contractors,” he noted.

SLDMWAPeltier is concerned for those in the Central Valley, and water agencies are working frantically to find answers. “We’re working on it,” Peltier affirmed. “We’ve got a lot of engineers and operators preparing spreadsheets and analyzing both the variables and what changes could be made to avoid lower water levels at San Luis Reservoir.”

Commenting on this year’s deliveries, Peltier stated, “No doubt we’re in an unprecedented operating environment. Here we are, eight months into the water year, and we just got a temperature plan for Lake Shasta—that is driving the whole operation—the project. Limiting releases like they are in the temperature plan [designed keep the water cold to protect winter-run salmon eggs]at least we thoughtwould allow Reclamation to hold the commitments they made. But we’re on razor’s edge right now,” Peltier explained.

Peltier described how the process is holding up water release, “The National Marine Fisheries Service wants to keep as much water in storage as possible, in order to keep the cold water cool as long as they can. This is all to protect the winter-run salmon eggs that are in the gravel right now, protect them until the weather turns cool and things naturally cool down. Then they can release water. Shasta’s been effectively trumped by another million-acre feed because of this temperature plan.”

Peltier further noted that the Lake Shasta temperature plan has not allowed water to flow into the Sacramento River. It has severely impacted growers in Northern California on a year when the northern part of the state received above average rain and snowfall during the winter.

“People diverting off the river in the Sacramento Valley have had their own water level issues. There hasn’t been enough water coming down the river to get elevation enough adequate for their pumps. There’s been a lot of ground water pumping,” he said.

The nearly extinct Delta Smelt has been a longstanding issue for those affected by California’s drought. After the past five years of sacrifice, even more water is being taken from agriculture and cities to help save the fish from extinction.

“We’ve got the California Department of Fish and Wildlife wanting significant increases in delta outflow over the summer, supposedly for the benefit of delta smelt, another operational complexity that is sadly not based on any science that we could see. The agencies have their beliefs, and they have the power,” said Peltier.

Featured photo: Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.


California Ag Today will update readers on Bureau of Reclamation announcements about the 5% contracted water delivery federal water district growers were expecting.

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California Water Cutbacks Are Not Saving Delta Smelt

U.S. Supreme Court to rule on ESA-mandated water curtailments to protect Delta Smelt regardless of the cost to humans and economy

 

A summary of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Fall Midwater Trawl Survey (FMWT) reports the lowest index for Delta Smelt in the 48-year history of this survey. The FMWT is mandated by the Delta Smelt Biological Opinion for the coordinated operation of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.

Jason Peltier, Chief Deputy General Manager of the Westlands Water District, sees these results as the “latest evidence of a failed regulatory regime.”

CDFW-Insignia-146x193The memorandum, sent from Steven Slater, CDFW Environmental Scientist, Region 3, to Scott Wilson, CDFW Regional Manager, Region 3, describes the Survey which annually measures the fall abundance of pelagic fish—fish which live neither near the bottom of oceans or lakes, nor near the surface, such as ocean coral reefs—since 1967. FMWT equipment and methods have remained consistent since the survey’s inception, which allows the indices to be compared across time.

According to the Memorandum, the FMWT annual abundance index is the sum of monthly indices from surveys conducted over the four months from September through December each year. During each monthly survey, one 12-minute oblique midwater trawl tow is conducted at each of 100 index stations used for index calculation and at an additional 22 non-index stations that provide enhanced distribution information.

The 2014 Delta Smelt index is 9, making it the lowest index in FMWT history. Delta Smelt abundance was highest in 1970 and has been consistently low since 2003, except in 2011.

Other fish also scored poorly. The 2014 age-0 Striped Bass index is 59, making it the third lowest index in FMWT history. Age-0 Striped Bass abundance was highest at the survey’s inception in 1967. The 2014 Longfin Smelt index is 16, making it the second lowest index in FMWT history. Longfin Smelt abundance was highest in 1967. The 2014 Threadfin Shad index is 282, which is the sixth lowest in FMWT history and the seventh in a series of very low abundance indices. Threadfin Shad abundance was highest in 1997. The 2014 American Shad index is 278, which is the second lowest in FMWT history and only slightly higher than the 2008 index of 271. American Shad abundance was highest in 2003. (Figures 2 through 6, below, illustrate these indices.)

2014_FMWT_graphs 1-4_Page_1 2014_FMWT_graphs 1-4_Page_2

In, “Delta smelt legal battle heads to Supreme Court,” published Wednesday in the LA Times, reporter David Savage, stated, “The delta smelt may be a small fish with a short life, but it has spawned a decades-long legal battle over water in California.
At issue has been a series of orders under the Endangered Species Act that at times reduce water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to San Joaquin Valley growers and urban Southern California.”

Citing the severe state drought, the article reports that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California attorneys are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider a strict federal rule from the 1970s that calls for curtailing the water diversions to protect the threatened delta smelt and other imperiled species regardless of the cost to humans and the economy.”

Lawyers for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. urged the court to turn down the appeals, the article states, saying the 9th Circuit was correct in saying Fish and Wildlife officials must take reasonable steps to protect an endangered species, regardless of the economic effect.

Kate Poole, an NRDC attorney, said the water agencies have “a long history of exaggerating the impacts “of protecting endangered fish in the delta, including Chinook salmon,” per the LA Times. “The underlying problem in California is that our demand for water consistently exceeds our supply, even in non-drought years,” she said. “Wiping out our native fisheries will not solve this problem.”

 

In response to the NRDC comments, the California Farm Water Coalition electronically published the following Today:

Kate Poole’s remarks, that farmers have exaggerated the impacts of ESA-based water supply cuts, would be insulting to the thousands of farmers, farmworkers, and local business owners who face not just bankruptcy, but the loss of their way of life. Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland have been permanently fallowed. Farmers have switched to higher value crops to justify higher costs for reduced water supplies. Farmworkers have moved away, seeking employment because of job losses in communities like Firebaugh, Mendota and Huron.”

Communities were developed on the faith that was placed in the federal government to keep its promise to deliver reliable supplies of water through the Delta.  While the impacts of reduced water supplies seem insignificant to the lobbyists and lawyers from the kinds of powerful environmental organizations represented by Poole, for those whose very livelihoods are dependent on this water it is a constant struggle.

 

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Native ecosystems blitzed by drought

Source: Alexandra Witze and Nature Magazine; Scientific American

Peter Moyle has seen a lot in five decades of roaming California’s streams and rivers and gathering data on the fish that live in them. But last month he saw something new: tributaries of the Navarro River, which rises in vineyards before snaking through a redwood forest to the Pacific, had dried up completely.

“They looked in July like they normally look in September or October, at the end of the dry season,” says Moyle, a fish biologist at the University of California, Davis.

Blame the drought. The Navarro and its hard-pressed inhabitants are just one example of stresses facing a parched state. From the towering Sierra Nevada mountains — where the snowpack this May was only 18% of the average — to the broad Sacramento–San Joaquin river delta, the record-setting drought is reshaping California’s ecosystems.

It is also giving researchers a glimpse of the future. California has always had an extreme hydrological cycle, with parching droughts interrupted by drenching Pacific storms (see ‘Extreme hydrology’). But scientists say that the current drought — now in its third year — holds lessons for what to expect 50 years from now.

“The west has always gone through this, but we’ll be going through it at perhaps a more rapid cycle,” says Mark Schwartz, a plant ecologist and director of the John Muir Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Davis. He and others are discussing the drought’s ecological consequences at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, which runs from August 10 to 15 in Sacramento, California. He says that the state’s plant and animal species are at risk in part because California ecosystems are already highly modified and vulnerable to a variety of stresses.

Many of the state’s 129 species of native inland fish, including several types of salmon, are listed by federal or state agencies under various levels of endangerment. “We’re starting from a pretty low spot,” says Moyle. He hopes to use the current drought to explore where native fish have the best chances of surviving.

That could be in dammed streams such as Putah Creek near the Davis campus, where water flow can be controlled to optimize native fish survival. Another focus might be on spring-fed streams such as those that flow down from volcanic terrain in northernmost California and can survive drought much longer than snow-fed streams.

In the late 1970s, Moyle discovered that native fish in the Monterey Bay watershed recolonized their streams relatively quickly after a two-year drought. But today’s streams face greater ecological pressures, such as more dams and more non-native species competing for habitat.

Other challenges arise in the delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet, north-east of San Francisco. An invasive saltwater clam (Potamocorbula amurensis) has taken advantage of warming river waters and moved several kilometres upriver, says Janet Thompson, an aquatic ecologist with the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California.

Potamocorbula out-competes a freshwater clam (Corbicula fluminea), and accumulates about four times as much of the element selenium from agricultural run-off and refineries as its freshwater cousin does. When endangered sturgeon feed on Potamocorbula, the fish consume much more selenium than is optimal. “That’s the biggest shift that we’ve seen that’s of environmental concern,” says Thompson. “These are the kinds of things that can have a lasting effect on a predator species.”

Teasing out the drought’s effects on terrestrial animals is tougher. Researchers have documented drops in various California bird populations this year, such as mallard ducks (Anas platyrynchos) and tricolor blackbirds (Agelaius tricolor). But many other factors — especially habitat loss — also come into play, so it becomes hard to isolate the effects of drought.

The drought’s effects on larger animals such as bears are also uncertain. Anecdotal reports suggest that more bears than usual are showing up closer to people this year, says Jason Holley, a wildlife biologist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in Rancho Cordova. Within the space of six weeks this spring, four black bears appeared along the Sacramento River corridor, much farther out of the mountains than normal. “Those sorts of calls definitely pique your interest,” says Holley, who thinks that dry conditions in the mountains might be pushing bears closer to populated areas.

The longest-lasting effect could be on California’s forests, including its iconic giant sequoias. The drought has handed forest ecologists an unplanned experiment, says Phillip van Mantgem, a forestry expert at the USGS in Arcata, California, who is speaking at the Sacramento meeting.

Researchers are gathering data to examine whether thinning of plots in the forest, in part to reduce fire risk, might help trees do better under drought. Tests may also help to reveal the main mechanisms by which drought kills different tree species, whether by interrupting the flow of water within the tree or by starving it. “I’m really curious to see how this turns out,” van Mantgem says.

There should be plenty of time to gather data. Climatologists expect an El Niño weather pattern to form in the Pacific this year, which usually brings more rain and snow to parts of California (see Nature 508, 20–21; 2014). But the pending El Niño looks to be weaker than first expected, and may not have much, if any, influence on ending the drought. Chances are that the state will remain dry well into 2015.

 

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Gov. Brown Issues Executive Order to Redouble State Drought Actions

Governor Brown Doubles Down on Drought

 

With California’s driest months ahead, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today issued an executive order to strengthen the state’s ability to manage water and habitat effectively in drought conditions and called on all Californians to redouble their efforts to conserve water.

“The driest months are still to come in California and extreme drought conditions will get worse,” said Governor Brown. “This order cuts red tape to help get water to farmers more quickly, ensure communities have safe drinking water, protect vulnerable species and prepare for an extreme fire season. I call on every city, every community, every Californian to conserve water in every way possible.”

In January, the Governor declared a drought state of emergency. Since then, state water officials say that reservoirs, rainfall totals and the snowpack remain critically low. Current electronic readings show the snowpack’s statewide water content at just 16 percent of average.

In the order, Governor Brown directs the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board to expedite approvals of voluntary water transfers to assist farmers. He also directs the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to accelerate monitoring of drought impacts on winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River and its tributaries, and to execute habitat restoration projects that will help fish weather the on-going drought.

To respond to the increased threat of wildfire season, the order streamlines contracting rules for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and CALFIRE for equipment purchases and enables landowners to quickly clear brush and dead, dying or diseased trees that increase fire danger.

The order also calls on Californians and California businesses to take specific actions to avoid wasting water, including limiting lawn watering and car washing; recommends that schools, parks and golf courses limit the use of potable water for irrigation; and asks that hotels and restaurants give customers options to conserve water by only serving water upon request and other measures. The order also prevents homeowner associations from fining residents that limit their lawn watering and take other conservation measures.

The order provides a limited waiver of the California Environmental Quality Act for several actions that will limit harm from the drought.  This waiver will enable these urgently needed actions to take place quickly and will remain in place through the end of 2014.

Continue reading “Gov. Brown Issues Executive Order to Redouble State Drought Actions”

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