Today the staff of the State Water Control Resources Board released their recommendation identifying the amount of water needed to keep Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta wildlife and ecosystems alive. The staff recommendations mirror calls for more water made by fish biologists, other scientists, and state and federal wildlife officials who have studied the problem. The staff report also supports the findings of two federal biological opinions that call for more water to prevent the extinction of federally protected fish species as well as chinook salmon that support an important coastal fishery. Indeed, the vast majority of state recommended flows exceed those required in the biological opinions.
“Now we have state water officials finally recognizing that it’s in the state’s interest to allow water to flow through the Delta because of all the jobs related to the salmon fishing industry, both commercial and recreational, that depend on rebuilding our salmon runs,” said Zeke Grader, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations Executive Director.
The recommendations are the first to ever clearly identify the amount of water needed to keep the West Coast’s most important estuary healthy and are sure to draw attack from the agricultural and development interests that have engineered recent increases in water withdrawals that have caused the Delta to collapse.
“In August the state will consider other interests competing for the water needed to keep the delta and our coastal fishing towns alive,” said Earthjustice attorney Trent Orr. “State water officials have made the right call today to fix the Delta by restoring at least minimum water flows to keep nature alive, including our valuable salmon runs. There are a lot of humans that would benefit if the Delta were brought back to health, as recommended today.”
Twice before State Board staff has developed science-based flow recommendations and twice before the science was ignored and the recommendations buried by the state administration at the behest of agribusiness and land development interests. Failing to follow the science and the law has nearly destroyed the Bay-Delta estuary and the state’s billion-dollar salmon industry.
The 1992 Central Valley Water Improvement Act called for 800,000 acre feet of water to be dedicated to wildlife in the Central Valley and Delta, but this requirement has never been met. Federal water managers have released some water only to recapture it shortly downstream before it can provide the benefits to wildlife for which it is intended. This 800,000 acre feet of water needs to be allowed to flow through the Delta and out into San Francisco Bay every year to repair the damage the Delta pumps have caused.
An independent panel of scientific experts from the National Research Council (NRC) assigned to investigate ecological problems in the Delta heard from a series of experts last week about a litany of problems all tied directly or indirectly to water withdrawals from the Delta.
Massive extraction of freshwater has caused and exacerbated important shifts in the food web in the Delta. The dredging of deep channels to facilitate exports fundamentally limits photosynthesis and food production throughout the Delta. Subsequent water diversions and pumping physically removes 30 percent of the phytoplankton that is produced, which makes even less food available for consumption by native fish. Non-native invasive clams that thrive in the artificially salty conditions created by fresh water exports have expanded deep into the Delta as freshwater taken at the pumps has been replaced by salty water from the Bay. The clams are out-competing native wildlife for available food in the Delta.
Pesticides and selenium pollution streaming off farms in the Central Valley is hitting the Delta in deadly concentrations because water needed to dilute these chemicals is instead being siphoned off by the Delta pumps. The same thing is happening with ammonia coming from urban wastewater treatment plants in Central Valley cities.
Toxic blue-green algae and a non-native invasive water weed that now choke the Delta have greatly expanded as freshwater flows into the Delta have been redirected to almond and hay farmers who hold junior water rights in the western San Joaquin Valley.
Over-pumping of the Delta increased by 16 percent starting in the year 2000. Between the years 2000 and 2007 all time high record water withdrawals occurred. The head of the California Department of Water Resources told the NRC panel last week that the state wants to resume these record levels of water withdrawals at the clearly unsustainable levels that caused the Delta’s ecological collapse and violated the federal Endangered Species Act. The Delta collapse has also badly damaged California’s commercially valuable salmon fishery, wiping out tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity. The salmon fishery was shut down completely in 2008 and 2009 and only a token fishery is open this year.
Efforts in 1988 and 1992 to identify what water flows were needed to sustain the Delta while balancing human need were both killed by different Republican governors. The staff recommendations released today will be the subject of political jockeying in future state proceedings as development and agriculture interests work to get them ignored or erased.