Water Supplies Curtailed Once Again to Protect Delta Smelt

Pumping restrictions aimed at protecting Delta smelt have reduced deliveries to water agencies in the Central Valley, Southern California and San Francisco Bay Area by more than 700,000 acre-feet since Nov. 1, state officials announced Feb. 13.

In a conference call with reporters, Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said water deliveries from Delta pumps have been curtailed since mid-December under a biological opinion for Delta smelt issued by federal regulatory agencies. DWR and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation continue to confer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on measures to protect the smelt – a threatened fish found only in the Delta – while providing for water deliveries to Californians.

He called the situation an “all too familiar” conflict that water users and state and federal agencies are seeking to address through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

“As we manage our way through this situation as we have in past years, the compelling thing for me is that we have no reason to expect next year will be any different, or the year after that,” Cowin said. “The conflict will continue to play out year after year until we make fundamental changes in how we manage the Delta, and move from species-by-species approach to a more comprehensive approach.”

Noting that changes to Delta conveyance – particularly the point of diversion – and habitat restoration have been studied for years as part of the BDCP, Cowin said he finds it striking that “on one hand we are working toward long-term solutions, while on the other we face real-time challenges.”

“What a better situation we would be in for the environment and water users if were in the process of implementing BDCP or had already implemented BDCP.”

Cowin said water supplies lost as a result of the restrictions would have been enough to meet the needs of 1.4 million households for a year or to irrigate 200,000 acres of farmland.

An FAQ on the curtailments and other information can be found on Natural Resources Agency’s website at http://resources.ca.gov/smelt_and_water_supply.html.

The State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project have been operating under pumping restrictions since December, when federal agencies ordered curtailments after 90 smelt were entrained at pumps in the South Delta. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered further restrictions on Feb. 8 as the number of smelt salvaged at the pumps approached the number allowed as incidental “take” by the projects’ operations.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham said the current cycle of conflict must end to avoid further consequences to the Delta ecosystem and water supplies.

“The current approach is untenable,” Bonham said. “It too often puts our native and imperiled fish species in the West Coast’s largest estuary too close to the south Delta pumps. State and federal fishery agencies will continue to cast a critical eye on BDCP’s specifics, but we are confident that in concept a new diversion point can reduce this conflict between a healthy estuary and water needs in our economy.”

In response to the announcement, the State Water Contractors released a statement saying solutions envisioned as part of BDCP could have avoided the cutbacks.

“This year is proving to be another example of why the current system is unreliable and unsustainable. The water supply for 25 million people and millions of acres of farmland depends on where a few dozen fish are located in the Delta’s sprawling waterways. Until we build a better infrastructure system that protects both fish and water supplies, we’re forced to operate under regulations that have high costs for California’s public water agencies, farms and economy, while producing little if any benefit for the fish.” State Water Contractors General Manager Terry Erlewine said.

ACWA Executive Director Timothy Quinn described the cutbacks as further evidence that the current Delta infrastructure is unsustainable.

“We have the wrong infrastructure in the Delta, and it’s been apparent for decades,” Quinn said in a statement and a blog post. “Conveyance improvements, coupled with habitat restoration and other measures to address Delta stressors, can get us out of this cycle of conflict and on the road to a water system that works for the economy and the environment.”

A fact sheet released by the California Farm Water Coalition said the 727,863 acre-feet of water lost over the past two months would be sufficient to provide the annual food supply for 726,000 people. It also represents some 12,800 farm jobs and $873 million in crop production, according to the coalition.

"The federal regulations went into effect on December 7 and redirected water that would have been used by farmers this year to produce fresh fruit, vegetable and nut crops, dairy products and premium California cotton," said Mike Wade, the coalition’s executive director. "Instead, California faces $2.2 billion in lost economic activity that could have been generated from farming operations.

"Sadly, these regulations aren't working to protect the fish they were intended to help. It's time we take a sensible look at how we provide for the ecosystem while at the same time support California's farms, jobs and people - and our nation's food supply," Wade said.

The fact sheet is available at farmwater.org/watersupplycutshurtusall.pdf