Delta News

The wet winter brought lots of water to California. But fighting over fish continues

A Delta smelt provided by UC Davis for research is held by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Ron Silva near Tracy. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to downsize the Delta tunnels project, which is designed to ease conditions for the struggling smelt population.
A Delta smelt provided by UC Davis for research is held by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Ron Silva near Tracy. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to downsize the Delta tunnels project, which is designed to ease conditions for the struggling smelt population. Fresno Bee file

The wettest winter on record for Northern California filled most of the state’s reservoirs and had the massive Delta water pumps roaring at full tilt for the first half of the year.

Despite this seeming abundance of water, the never-ending dispute continues between farms and cities wanting to receive more water and environmental groups fighting for the Delta’s fragile population of tiny smelt.

Environmentalists are opposed to a proposal championed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Southern California water interests to ramp up pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta starting next week. The plan would allow an additional 130 billion gallons of water to be shipped through the Delta to farms and cities in Silicon Valley, Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Otherwise, that water would flow on a natural course to the Pacific Ocean.

Fisheries regulators at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may decide as soon as Friday whether to approve the plan.

Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, said the proposal would put the critically endangered Delta smelt at unnecessary risk when an abnormally wet year was supposed to give the fish a break. As recently as the 1970s, these finger-length fish numbered in the millions. In recent years, biologists have been finding mere handfuls of the fish during Delta trawling surveys.

“It’s basically so they can just pump a lot of water,” Obegi said of the water contractors’ proposal. “With the population so low and on the brink of extinction, the idea ... we’re going to cut corners is ludicrous.”

Obegi blamed President Donald Trump’s administration for pushing to boost pumping, but officials at the state and federal agencies that manage the two Delta pumping stations near Tracy say California water contractors are behind the proposal.

The contractors argue there’s enough water this year to allow for more pumping. They also contend that pumping reductions haven’t been proven to help the smelt – an oft-stated claim environmental groups vociferously dispute.

“Is it worth losing a huge amount of water for something with a dubious purpose?” said Jason Peltier, general manager of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which oversees Delta water deliveries to Silicon Valley and millions of acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland.

The Delta smelt are a major source of contention in California’s water wars. The fish have been mocked and derided by Republican politicians, including Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and several San Joaquin Valley congressmen, who argue the pumping restrictions to protect the fish have unduly harmed the country’s most productive farming region.

At issue is a complicated set of requirements federal scientists use to set Delta pumping rates. The requirements change with the seasons depending on river flows through the Delta, how salty the water is and where the smelt and other fish live at various points during the year.

Water contractors argue there’s enough wiggle room in the requirements this fall to allow for 400,000 acre-feet of additional water to be pumped south. For perspective, that’s enough water to fill 40 percent of an empty Folsom Lake.

The contractors say there’s extra need to move more water south because of the crisis earlier this year at Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir for south-of-Delta State Water Project customers.

With the rainy season approaching, repair crews are scrambling to fix the giant crater that formed in Oroville Dam’s main flood-control spillway, a crisis that eventually triggered a mass evacuation of the Oroville area. For safety purposes, dam managers are dumping 1.5 million more acre-feet than usual from the reservoir by Nov. 1. While the dam’s main flood-control spillway is damaged, the dam can still release water through its powerhouse – its primary outlet outside of the rainy season.

Dumping that much water from Oroville – the equivalent of about 1.5 times the amount of water that can be stored at Folsom Lake – leaves less water available next spring and summer for the south-of-Delta State Water Project contractors.

“Given the conditions at Oroville, it’s important that we’re going into next year’s water year in the best position that we can,” said Jennifer Pierre, the general manager of the State Water Contractors, whose members rely on Oroville and the state-run Delta pumps.

But Obegi says the guidelines are clear: During exceptionally wet years, Delta smelt are entitled to get flows heading toward the Pacific Ocean that keep them in their preferred habitat in the Suisun Marsh. The additional pumping proposed by the contractors would reduce flows to the point that they would be pushed into undesirable areas.

He said the last time conditions allowed for high Delta outflows this time of year was in 2011, and the smelt saw a “10-fold increase” in their numbers when more water was allowed to go to fish habitat. Obegi said the contractors’ concerns about water supply aren’t as pressing this fall because key south state reservoirs filled with pumped-in Delta water are nearly full, thanks to this year’s exceptional rainy season.

“This would give the fish a break in one of the wettest years in California history, and actually see some recovery for the species,” Obegi said. “Now, they don’t want to do what the science says they should do.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow