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.
Peltier 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 thought—would 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.
We are witnessing the dismantling of the California water conveyance system that supplies drinking water for 25 million California residents and four million acres of prime farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.
Our water resources are being “Withheld” from the very people of this state who have shown what “Free Enterprise” can do not only for the well-being of all in California, but the entire nation. Unfortunately, several major environmental groups and complacent politicians are killing the freedoms that have been the bulwark of success in California. Let me explain.
Water is our most valuable renewable resource and Mother Nature gives it to California in copious amounts during most years. What we do with that water—water management—is critical to the future of the Golden State.
On average, 200.0 million acre-feet of water a year blankets our state. One acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons of water. Of that precipitation, 75% originates north of the Sacramento River. The other 25% falls in central and southern California.
The water that is not manageable by us is 120.0 million acre-feet. Some of it evaporates, but most of it settles into the ground, fills lakes, and what remains heads for the Pacific Ocean. The balance of the water is called “directable” surface water (80,000,000 acre-feet) and this is where we have the opportunity to put it to its best and proper use.
By 2005, according to the Department of Water Resources, 48% of that directable water went to the environment, 41% to agriculture and the remaining 11% to rural areas. This balance of such a precious resource seemed at the time to be equitable to all parties, thanks to the ingenuity of our forefathers in the 20th century. Their foresight gave us a water conveyance system second to none in the entire world.
California’s water conveyance system had four major objectives:
To provide reliable water deliveries to 25 million people to avoid water shortages that would otherwise exist and continually plague two-thirds of the California population.
To support four million acres in central California of what the National Geographic Magazine proclaimed to be the most productive farmland in the world.
To reinforce our natural environment.
To recharge our groundwater supplies.
Some distinctions should be made here as to how much directable water we are actually concerned about. At full capacity, the two California water conveyance systems—the State Water Project (SWP) and the federal Central Valley Project (CVP)—deliver water from northern California to southern and central California. Each system, the CVP and the SWP, has the capacity to each deliver 4.0 million acre-feet water each year. However, this water delivery capacity has never been tested. The record shows that in the years prior to 2005, the average total delivery COMBINED for both projects was 5.4 million acre-feet per year. The ultimate users of this water went to agriculture (60%) and the rural population (40%).
The volume of water available, on average, from the Sacramento River, including the San Joaquin River, is 30.3 million acre-feet. It is from this volume of water that the 5.4 million acre-feet are sent south.
In 2007, several environmental organizations led by Natural Resources Defense Council took the Department of Water Resources to court to compel the court to enforce the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The court ruling to enforce this law declared that the giant water export pumps that raise the water from the Delta into the California Aqueduct were cut back because it was suspect that the pumps were killing too many delta smelt, an endangered species.
Even in flood years restricted pumping has reduced the water flow to a fraction of the contracted normal flow. Henceforth, since 2007, our water deliveries to urban and agricultural areas have been severely compromised.
The enforcement of these laws is now negating the four major functions of the giant California water conveyance system outlined with the possible exception of the natural environment. Now mind you, this water comes from northern California where 75% of the rain in California falls, averaging over 50 inches a year. Central and southern California “average” less than 15 inches a year.
During the seven years from 2007 through 2014, average deliveries to farms have been reduced to less than one acre-foot per year. Most agricultural crops require 3 ½ acre-feet of water per year. Today, without recourse, these farms are left with barely enough water to keep their plants alive. As for the hardship visited upon 25 million consumers, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) in southern California is a good example.
The MWD services 19 million accounts, and prior to 2007, was receiving 40% of its water from the SWP. That water source has now only been able to supply approximately 10% of their needs. Consequently, due to seeking other sources to replace their water losses, rate increases to their customers over the years 2007 to 2014 have doubled. On top of all these setbacks, Mother Nature now has shown us her own drought versus our manufactured water crisis. All the way through this synthetic drought, the average rate of precipitation at the source of our water in northern California has been 45 inches each year.
In order to survive, those of us who must have an adequate supply of water to sustain us have been forced to pump more groundwater and/or purchase water from farmers who idle farmland and transfer their water to areas severely threatened with water shortages. For some of those lucky enough to find water for sale, the cost of water has become a severe financial burden. Where farms in the Central Valley were, prior to 2007, paying just under $100 per acre-foot, today if a willing seller can be found, the price can range anywhere from $1,000 to over $2,000 per acre-foot. In many such cases, water costs can exceed all other cultural costs combined. Likewise, the aquifer has dropped every year since 2007 due to frantic attempts by farmers to supplement the critical loss of surface water.
WHAT MUST BE DONE:
The effects of water deprivation over an eight-year period by a man-made drought capped by one of nature’s real droughts, is wrecking havoc with the nation’s food supply. The state of California is now in the grips of the Law of Diminishing Returns and is incapable of averting a disaster due to environmental regulations. Consequently, this country’s NATIONAL SECURITY is being compromised. CONGRESS MUST ACT NOW before further damage is done. These actions need to be taken:
1. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) must be excluded from jurisdiction over the pumps, which move northern water to central and southern California. The pumps are presently operating at about 15% of their capacity. This measure should be permanent and under the management of the Department of Water Resources (DWR).
2. The Endangered Species Act needs to be revised in order to “protect all species”, including humans, from collateral damage due to methods employed to save one species that results in severe damage to other species. This would be implemented through a biological opinion that would INCLUDE a list of all species that would be adversely affected by the METHOD employed to protect one specific species. This measure would make right just one of the irregularities in this flawed law, which attracts litigation like bees to honey. The law does not need to be struck down, simply rewritten to safeguard “all” species, including human beings.
3. California’s magnificent water distribution and conveyance system has no peer in this world. It is a remarkable feat of engineering admired by those who have come from far and near to marvel at its accomplishment. Yet, by environmental fiat, it has been reduced to a token of its capabilities. “Directable” water in California originally ceded one-third of its 80,000,000 acre-feet to the environment.
Today, according to the DWR, the environment now takes, not one-third, but 50% of the direct able water, leaving the rest to urban and farming communities. This is not what the original framers envisioned, but under the DWR, its control has been gradually diluted by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and one of its extensions known as the STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD (SWRCB). THIS FIVE PERSON-BOARD IS STAFFED WITH ENVIRONMENTALISTS, such as their chairwoman, Felicia Marcos, a Governor Brown-appointee, whose professional background includes eight years with the EPA and five years with the radical Natural Resources Defense Council.
The influence of these federal agencies, backed by political power brokers’ lobbyists, has tilted the water distribution of surface water away from its original intended users. In essence, the environmentalists now control California’s surface water; and now, with the passage of the recent 7.5 billion dollar Water Bond, they will control our groundwater as well. If the water agencies do not perform with the desired results, the bottom-line is that final control will go to the SWRCB.
The ship of state now needs to be righted; it is drifting far off course. First of all, the EPA must be brought to heel. For a federal agency, it exerts far too much power. And, in so doing, has completely distorted California’s surface water delivery system. Next, the SWRCB must either be eliminated with FULL CONTROL restored to the Department of Water Resources, or completely reorganized as an ADVISORY BOARD to the DWR where ALL recipients of the surface water system would be represented. A ten-board membership might be in order, with a director and the nine remaining seats divided into three equal parts by experienced personnel in agriculture, city water management, and the environment, i.e., three persons from each classification and residents of northern, central and southern California.
4. Finally, one in every ten workers in California is either directly, or indirectly dependent upon the health of our vast agricultural industry.
It is time to step forward and reveal, with facts and figures, the house of cards that water management in this state has become. Likewise, those 25 million people in southern California, such as the MWD’s 19 million users who once got 40% of their water from the giant conveyance system, deserve to get that water back.
With years of a man-made drought compounded by a natural drought now in the eighth year, there is ample information available through various farm county records to quantify in lost dollars the cumulative effect of, (1) lost production due to forced fallowing of land, (2) water costs that are now ten times what they were prior to 2007, and (3) the heavy burden economically of converting hardworking farm labor to the welfare roles where some Central Valley towns are now approaching 50% unemployment. Combined, these costs will be in the billions of dollars, bloating further our California deficit.
The goal of society has always been to improve the human condition and for one generation to leave a better world for the next. The visionaries of the 20th century got it right. They delivered in spades to us, the beneficiaries, a modern miracle. It is a water conveyance system like none other to serve all the people of California. Where are those visionaries now? Rather than embrace the gifts of a reliable source of precious water, they proceed to dismantle the entire system. It is because of the system that California feeds the nation. This is not just a California crisis. It is one that will affect the entire nation. Look upon it as a national security threat and demand that our leaders do what is right for the vast majority of this country’s people.
Lawrence H. Easterling, Jr. Administrator, Kettleman Pistachio Growers and Director, American Pistachio Growers
Joel Nelsen, President of California Citrus Mutual on Water Usage
By Courtney Steward with California Ag Today
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual (CCM), commented on the recent upsurge in negative public opinion on the state’s agricultural water usage, “They don’t want the attention focused on their cherished agenda item, which is environmentalism.”
“There are good reasons to protect the environment,” Nelsen explained, “we don’t want salt-water intrusion in the Delta and we don’t want fish to become extinct. However, we do want a realistic approach to solving environmental problems starting with science-based assessments, partial limits and sustainable solutions.”
Nelsen said “’sustainability’ varies depending on who you talk to. “Ask a farmer and they will tell you that sustainability is about producing a legacy, ensuring that future generations too will be able to cultivate a viable crop on the same land. Sustainability is about learning from the past to prepare for the future and fulfilling an inherent responsibility to the environment and to society, working with the land in order to feed the world today and in the future. The California citrus industry has not only sustained, but thrived for over 125 years.”
“So, how do we solve this complex issue of a limited water supply for competing needs with solutions that deliver sustainable results with accountability from all parties involved? Nelsen stated, “You want a thorough assessment of the current situation; are our current solutions solving our water problems?”
“When you talk about restoring the San Joaquin River,” Nelsen explained, “our current solution is not biologically viable. The smelt population is not recovering; it continues to decline. Let’s honestly ask ourselves ‘is this solution effective or is it time to quit wasting money, quit wasting water and try another science-based solution?”
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 (seeNature 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.