Report: California Delta In Deep Peril From Water Diversions

Water must be restored to avoid major damage to fish, wildlife

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California’s delta is being sucked into oblivion by big agriculture and Southern California, and its fish and wildlife will suffer permanent harm if water diversions aren’t reduced, a new report warns full report here>.

Yesterday, the staff of California’s State Water Control Resources Board released their recommendations identifying the freshwater flows needed to support wildlife and ecosystems in the West Coast’s most important estuary. The Stockton Record immediately seized on the report in a columnist’s scathing attack on the state itself:

This is big. This is not some environmental group saying Delta fish need more water. This is not a scientific panel easy to ignore. This is the state of California itself. The very state that brutally exploited the Delta, from its dam-it-up mentality of the 20th Century to the send-it-south policy persisting to this day.

The recommendations — to dramatically increase flows to the delta – mirror calls for more water by fish biologists and other scientists who have studied the problem for years. The report also supports the findings of two recent court-ordered federal plans – won by Earthjustice attorneys – calling for increased flows to prevent the extinction of protected fish species. Indeed, some of the state recommendations exceed those required in the federal plans.

The report represents the first-ever attempt to clearly identify the amount of water needed to keep the estuary healthy. As such, it is sure to draw attack from the agribusiness and development interests that have benefited from recent increases in Delta water withdrawals that have sparked both an environmental and economic collapse in the region.

Pumping from the Delta increased by 16 percent starting in the year 2000. Record high water withdrawals occurred between the years 2000 and 2007, significantly contributing to the Delta’s decline and violating the federal Endangered Species Act.

The excessive pumping also wiped out huge numbers of baby fall-run chinook salmon before they could reach the sea, crippling California and Oregon’s commercial and recreational salmon harvests, and eliminating tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.

The salmon season was shut down in 2008 and 2009 along one thousand miles of America’s coastline and only a token commercial fishery is open in California this year.

Failing to follow the science and the law has nearly destroyed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary as well as a billion-dollar salmon industry in two states. Now we know what it takes to protect the resources of the Delta.

It will be up to state and federal officials to follow science and the law to bring back the Delta’s spectacular ecosystem, while restoring economic vitality to California and Oregon’s coastal communities.

Jim McCarthy worked with Earthjustice attorneys to shine a press spotlight on West Coast salmon and water issues.