Soapbox

Will state water resources board protect the Delta?

A small tag is visible on one of three Delta smelt, left, at the UC Davis Fish Conservation and Culture Lab. Scientists are breeding a refuge population of Delta smelt in case the species goes extinct.
A small tag is visible on one of three Delta smelt, left, at the UC Davis Fish Conservation and Culture Lab. Scientists are breeding a refuge population of Delta smelt in case the species goes extinct. Sacramento Bee file

When a company sells tainted ice cream, we ask, “When did the FDA know about the contamination?” When a train carrying crude oil derails, we ask, “When did the NTSB know the safety equipment was not installed?”

We ask because those are the agencies that need to be held accountable for protecting us.

But agencies are made up of individuals who make conscious choices about whether they will act. Most take their responsibility very seriously. The state Air Resources Board, for instance, helped uncover the Volkswagen diesel fraud.

Now, we will find out if the five members of the State Water Resources Control Board will do their job to protect the San Francisco Bay Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast.

Every independent scientist has confirmed that too much water has been diverted from the Delta. The board’s own scientific review in 2010 confirmed that more freshwater flows were needed to bring the Delta back to health, but the board chose not to act.

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife just completed its survey of Delta smelt, a native fish that lives only in the Delta. Only four were caught in September, none in October or November and only one in December. Because Delta smelt used to exist in the millions, scientists consider it a bellwether species for the ecological health of the entire Delta. Better-known fish such as California’s native salmon and steelhead, which also depend on adequate freshwater flows, are also in catastrophic decline that could lead to extinction.

It is not just fish in danger. The outdated water quality standards do not recognize the risk of pathogens such as microcystis, commonly known as blue green algae, which reproduce in stagnant water. With half or more of the freshwater being diverted from the Delta, the spread of this organism is a growing health concern.

Federal law requires the board to update Delta standards every three years, yet the board has not done so for more than 20 years. It has only granted exemptions from the already inadequate standards, allowing more water to be diverted.

Incredibly, the board recently announced that even though it won’t update the standards until 2018 at the earliest, it will consider approving Gov. Jerry Brown’s massive tunnel project that could divert even more fresh water from the Delta. The permitting process for the Delta tunnels is to start Jan. 28. After approving new standards, it plans to place additional conditions on the amount of water the tunnels could divert.

That does not make sense. After water contractors spend upward of $17 billion on the tunnels, they would exert overwhelming political pressure to ensure they get the water they were initially promised. Remember the saying, “Water runs uphill towards money.” That is not a joke; it is California water history.

The question for Water Resources Control Board members is whether they will do their job and establish meaningful standards to protect people and fish before considering approval of these massive tunnels.

Or will they make decisions that will lead to the extinction of salmon and other fish and potentially put people’s health at risk?

Jonas Minton, deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources from 2000 to 2004, is water policy adviser at the Planning and Conservation League. He can be contacted at jminton@pcl.org.

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