Delta Smelt Are Poor Swimmers, Unlikely to Reach Pumps

How Many Smelt Are Actually At the Pumps?

By Kristi Diener, Fourth Generation San Joaquin Valley Farmer

Delta smelt are poor swimmers. When they have to swim against voluminous outflows, they struggle. They also lack endurance for distance and swimming against currents. This was the result of the taxpayer-funded swim performance test conducted more than 20 years ago. Why is this important?

Delta smelt live in the freshwater/saltwater mixing zone made up of outflow from the fresh waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, and the inflow of saltwater pushed towards that freshwater from the ocean tides. Smelt leave this mixing zone in search of freshwater to spawn, in the late winter to early spring. It is the same time of year when the outflows from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers are at their peak. Recently, water surging out from the rivers was equal to 104,900 basketballs per second!

If the smelt are able to swim against these powerful outflows, they don’t go too far, and generally spawn pretty close to the nearest region of freshwater they can find in the delta. However, most smelt being surveyed during spawning are not in the delta at all, rather, in the much smaller waterways to the north where there is a fraction of the freshwater outflow. Twenty-one years ago, UC Davis acknowledged outflows from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are actually too high for the endangered smelt!

Delta smelt by metric ruler Photo: USFWS
Delta smelt by metric ruler
Photo: USFWS

Let’s jump to the “pumps.” They are about 60 miles away from where smelt live in the mixing zone of the Suisun and San Pablo Bays. The pumps capture water at the south end of the delta, where it later flows into storage at San Luis Reservoir. Eventually, it is conveyed south to 2/3 of the state.

Water that is not captured by pumping surges out from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers into that mixing zone. These pumps are routinely throttled back because, according to the Smelt Biological Opinion, smelt are in danger of getting sucked-in and killed. The result of not pumping is huge losses of water for human use and huge increases of outflow from these two rivers into the ocean.

So how many smelt, who lack endurance for long swims according to the swim performance test, are actually surveyed near the pumps and at risk of being liquidated? Every month, a trawl survey is conducted to count smelt and find out where they’re hanging out. I pulled up the fish distribution maps for every monthly trawl over a 10-year period. The closest a smelt has been surveyed near the pumps is about 30 miles away from them, seven years ago.

Still, in spite of their own swim performance tests, the opinion is that smelt swim about a 60 mile, squiggly endurance course, destined for the pumps. Remember, they spawn in freshwater, but actually, live back in the mixing zone where they must return. Nonetheless, this opinion is the very hypothesis that ratchets back pumping at full capacity and prevents the securing of water for humans. There are many other facets of the opinion that are questionable as well. Incidentally, just two smelt have been surveyed anywhere in the last 10 months.

Here’s the good news. President Trump signed an executive memo in October, requiring the Biological Opinions to be reviewed and updated. The science is well over a decade old. Please notice it is called an “opinion”, not a fact. Trump set a timeline and a deadline to get it done too. The assessment phase had to be completed by January 31, and it was. The deadline for the new Opinions to be issued is 135 days after the assessment, which I calculate to be around June 15th. I’m counting.

In the next couple of months, we’ll likely be hearing a whole bunch of malarkey coming from the folks favoring water for the sea in the name of fish, instead of for humans and the earth. There will be an uproar when the Biological Opinions are revised to actually help endangered fish, instead of being used as a vehicle to implement an agenda of man-made water shortages, more regulations, increased fees, and new taxes. You will hear misinformation, but you will know the truth.

Delta Smelt Performance Test can be found here.

Denham Legislation Brings More Water Storage

Dept. of the Interior Moves forward on the Expansion of Shasta Dam

News Release Edited by Patrick Cavanaugh

 The U.S. Department of the Interior is moving forward on the enlargement of Shasta Dam, a critical water storage reservoir in California. This expansion comes as a direct result of Rep. Jeff Denham’s Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act language and $20 million in funding approved in March of this year.

“We’re moving forward with building more water storage for the first time in decades,” Denham said. “Real progress and results are what California needs if the next generation wants water.”

Rep. Jeff Denham

The total expansion of Shasta Dam will raise the dam by 18 ½ feet and provide an additional 630,000 acre-feet of stored water for families, farmers, and cities, delivering more water and improving reliability for farmers and communities. The expansion will also help reduce flood damage and improve water quality in the Sacramento River to revitalize fish populations and foster a stronger ecosystem.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, which is leading the expansion effort, construction contracts for the dam are expected to be issued by December 2019, and the entire project is estimated to cost $1.4 billion. The project is eligible for additional financing through Denham’s New WATER Act, which provides financing opportunities for water infrastructure projects and will reduce the cost to water users.

The Denham New WATER Act language is expected to be signed into law in the coming weeks to make major water infrastructure improvements a reality in the Central Valley. This success comes on the heels of major developments in the fight against Sacramento’s water grab, including Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue voicing support for Denham’s efforts to stop the state’s Bay-Delta plan.

For more information about the enlargement of Shasta Dam, click here. To learn more about what Rep. Denham is doing to fight for water in the Valley, visit www.Denham.house.gov/water, where you can also sign up to receive periodic updates on his work in Washington to improve local water infrastructure, storage and delivery.

Ag Uses Sound Science to Help Fish

Ag Collaborates to Help Endangered Fish

 

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

Don Bransford, president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) as well as a member of the State Board of Food and Agriculture, expressed major concerns with the proposed State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) diversion of 40% of the water from many irrigation districts on rivers that drain into the San Joaquin River to increase flows in the Delta to protect endangered fish.

 

“It’s a very difficult challenge because it appears that the SWRCB wants to increase the flows in the Sacramento River. That water has to come from somewhere, and it looks like it’s going to come from the irrigation districts. Unless we can do environmental projects on the River to improve habitat for fish and re-manage our water, we have water at risk,” said Bransford.

Don Bransford, president, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District
Don Bransford, president, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District

 

Bransford, who is also a rice farmer, said “Everyone has their own science regarding protecting those species. We’re talking about salmon, steelhead trout, and of course the smelt.”

“The difficulty is, we believe they’re using a lot of old science. There is newer science that suggests there are better ways to manage this. And, if something does not work, then you change. You just don’t throw more water at it,” he noted.

“We think habitat improvements are important in providing refuge for the fish,” Bransford explained. “We’re looking at flushing rice water into the rivers to provide food. Currently, the rivers are pretty sterile because they are just channels now. If we could apply flows from rice into the rivers like we did for the Delta Smelt this summer, you’re providing food for smelt.”

Bransford noted the Northern California irrigation districts work with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to increase flows in certain areas of the Sacramento River at certain times. “Our irrigation district managers work with the Bureau to provide flushing flows on the upper Sacramento.” These flows clean out diseased gravel beds in the absence of natural high water flows.”

“So they used some extra water late March of this year,” Bransford elaborated, “to just turn the gravel over to freshen it up. It did help the fish, particularly the salmon,” said Bransford.


Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID), according to its website, is dedicated to providing reliable, affordable water supplies to its landowners and water users, while ensuring the environmental and economic viability of the region. As the largest irrigation district in the Sacramento Valley, GCID has a long history of serving farmers and the agricultural community and maintaining critical wildlife habitat. The District fulfills its mission of efficiently and effectively managing and delivering water through an ever-improving delivery system and responsible policies, while maintaining a deep commitment to sustainable practices. Looking ahead, GCID will remain focused on continuing to deliver a reliable and sustainable water supply by positioning itself to respond proactively, strategically and responsibly to California’s ever-changing water landscape.

First the Feds, Now The State Plans More Water Diversions From Farms

More Planned Water Diversions From Farms to Fish-Not Just by Federal, but Also State Officials

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

California’s State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), regulators and environmental organizations want more water diversions to flow into the San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed to help save the declining Delta Smelt and Salmon. They have targeted three tributaries of the lower San Joaquin River; one of which is the Tuolumne River. Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Plan is a real threat to all Modesto Irrigation District (MID) and Turlock Irrigation District (TID) customers including ag, urban water, and electric.

Coalitions for a Sustainable Delta, water diversionsMichael Boccadoro a spokesperson for the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, commented on the SWRCB: “They need to be pushed back. They need to be told no.” Boccadoro explained the water in question represents about 400,000 acre-feet taken from communities, businesses and farms. Ironically 400,000 acre-feet is roughly equivalent to the capacity of Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir (360,400 acre-feet) that funnels water, unabated, to San Francisco.

“This is only Phase One of the Boards’ decision,” said Boccadoro. “This is going to eventually encompass the Sacramento River; this is just the beginning. This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination the only potential impact agriculture would feel,” he said.

Boccadoro, like other people in the industry, cannot fathom why the SWRCB needs to take this water when it doesn’t seem to be doing anything beneficial for the endangered fish species. “This issue of continuing to take water that is providing no benefit—or no clear benefit—for fish, while we do nothing [to mitigate] the other stressors that are having a huge impact on the fish, has to stop,” Boccadoro said.

Boccadoro noted, “It looks like Governor Brown has it in for farmers. We have problems with groundwater and increasing water scarcity in the state, and the result of this [plan] would be increased groundwater pumping—until they tell us we can’t pump groundwater. At that point, they are basically telling us, ‘You can’t farm any more.'”

“It’s a huge problem, said Boccadoro. “For whatever reason, it appears that the Brown administration has declared war on California agriculture. Enough is enough. We need to push back hard against the Water Board’s decisions,” noted Boccadoro.

“This is as good a place to fight as any as I can think of,” Boccadoro explained. “We need to start the fight and continue the fight, which is the only way it’s ever going to be turned back. The regulators and environmental groups must address the other stressors [to the endangered species]. Taking water from agriculture has not corrected the problem.

In the meantime Boccadoro hopes the farmers are taking notice. “I sure hope they’re willing to come up here [to Sacramento] and demand that the state not take their water,” he said.

Feinstein Urges President to Increase Delta Pumping

Feinstein Calls on President to Direct Federal Agencies to Increase Delta Pumping

 

Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) TODAY called on President Obama to direct federal agencies “to maximize pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the maximum extent allowed under the Endangered Species Act and biological opinions.”

Feinstein wrote in her letter to the president: “I believe that this year’s El Niño has highlighted a fundamental problem with our water system: A dogmatic adherence to a rigid set of operating criteria that continues to handcuff our ability to rebuild our reserves. We need a more nimble system. That’s why I included $150 million the past two years in the Energy and Water budget—so that decisions would be based on real-time data, rather than relying on intuition.”

Full text of the letter follows:

March 24, 2016

The Honorable Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President:

I ask you to direct the Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Marine Fisheries Service to maximize pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the maximum extent allowed under the Endangered Species Act and biological opinions. Water flows in the Sacramento River are the highest they have been in four years. Just last week, flows in the Sacramento were as high as 76,000 cubic feet per second. We’ve only seen flows that high twice in the past ten years, and not once during this drought. Yet the Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service are now considering reducing pumping due to concerns about larval smelt.

Despite these high flows, rather than pumping as much water as possible without undue harm to the smelt, pumping levels remained constant for the past month (see Chart B). Coupled with the fact that only three individual smelt were caught at the pumps this year, and that the most recent trawls revealed no Delta smelt in the south Delta, it seems to me that the agencies operate the system in a manner that may be contrary to the available data, culled from what is already a limited monitoring regime. I understand that the biological opinions impose a ceiling of -5,000 cubic feet per second, but the agencies have the discretion to exercise at least some flexibility to pump above that level.

To put this all in context, between January 1 and March 6 last year, 1.5 million acre-feet of water flowed through the Delta and 745,000 acre-feet were pumped out. During the same period this year, 5.5 million acre-feet of water flowed through the Delta, but only 852,000 acre-feet were pumped out (see Chart A). If we can’t increase pumping during an El Niño year, then when else can we?

The agencies have also put California and the communities that depend on this water in a Catch-22: Pumping is reduced when there are concerns about the presence of smelt caught as far away as 17 miles from the pumps. Yet agencies will also reduce pumping due to the absence of smelt, based on the idea that historically low smelt populations make detection difficult.

I believe that this year’s El Niño has highlighted a fundamental problem with our water system: A dogmatic adherence to a rigid set of operating criteria that continues to handcuff our ability to rebuild our reserves. We need a more nimble system. That’s why I included $150 million the past two years in the Energy and Water budget—so that decisions would be based on real-time data, rather than relying on intuition.

There are real-world consequences to the decisions being made in the Delta. 69 communities in the Southern San Joaquin Valley reported significant water supply and quality issues. And land is caving, bridges collapsing, as a result of overdrawn ground wells and subsidence. That’s why we need to make sure we’re using every possible tool to make the right choices. Basing pumping decisions on better science and real-time monitoring is the least we can do.

Sincerely,

Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator

###