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Delta Flows, Special Edition: July 31, 2013

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments – there are consequences.”

 – Robert Green Ingersoll

Special Edition by Jane Wagner-Tyack


This could be our future 

We have a situation going on in California right now that will tell us whether the State Water Resources Control Board can manage the state’s water resources for the benefit of the whole state rather than for the benefit of south San Joaquin Valley agriculture worth less than one-half of one percent of the state’s GDP.

This past spring, the Water Board received ten petitions from Northern California water rights holders to “temporarily” transfer their water diversion rights to some state and federal water contractors south of the Delta.  These contractors included the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Westlands Water District.

These contractors likely saw shortages on the horizon and wanted to secure additional water.  The problem with this whole strategy was set forth in a letter to the Water Board from the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), and AquAlliance:

. . .[These] petitions for temporary water transfers [are] injurious to existing water rights holders throughout the Sacramento Valley region, detrimental to the ecosystems of the Bay-Delta Estuary since they involve Delta export pumping, and [threaten], through groundwater substitution pumping, loss of surface flow to large head differences leading to excessive groundwater recharge from surface streams. . . .  [Most] of the petitions rely on groundwater substitution in order for sellers of their surface water rights to continue cultivation.  Increasing the footprint of senior water rights holders during a likely dry-to-drought year is a bad idea itself, when many other legal users of groundwater themselves need to pump more to grow and harvest their crops.  This puts senior water right users in direct conflict with groundwater-reliant neighbors and the environment—unnecessarily.

Despite the various arguments against these petitions for transfer, the Water Board approved them in early July.

The water rights shuffle

Then, earlier this month, the State Water Resources Control Board sent a notice to Diverters of Surface Water alerting them to lower-than-average storage levels in reservoirs resulting from two years of record dry and warm conditions.  “For 2013,” they note, “the combined total precipitation for the months of January through May is the driest in about 90 years of record.”

Operators of the State and federal water projects are going to have to release supplemental stored water to meet Delta water quality standards and in-basin entitlements.  (“In-basin entitlements” refers to a class of holders of water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins that includes cities.)  When they release that stored water, users of surface water with what are called Term 91 permits can’t divert water as they ordinarily would.  The Board warned that “water in the fall for uses such as planting winter crops may only be available to the most senior water right holders.”  If these conditions continue, even holders of senior water rights might see their diversions restricted.

In other words, the Water Board is approving water transfer petitions that create new uses of water at a time when existing water users are asked not to divert.  This means the Board is violating water rights law and the doctrine of prior appropriation.  This is because the Board regulates to benefit the water projects rather than to benefit ALL water rights holders.

But at least this means better water quality, right?

No.  Despite the suggestion that water is being reserved for releases to meet Delta water quality standards, water project operators have asked the Water Board to change this year’s classification from dry to critical because they expect to violate Delta outflow and salinity standards.  

The Water Board justified this violation of standards by arguing that they wanted to hold back water for cold water releases for fish later in the year.  But right now, flows in the Sacramento River are running above what would be reasonable dry-year flows if the real intent was to conserve water for later release.  And this certainly isn’t helping in-Delta users, some of whom are already reporting that river levels have dropped below the intakes to pumps they use to draw irrigation water. 

The beneficiaries of any extra flows are south-of-Delta users, the ones who are supposed to get only surplus water.

But fish will benefit, right?

No.  The effect of reduced water quality and flows on salmon could be dire in a year when a record number of salmon are expected to return to spawn.

“We’re only in a second dry year, not even a declared drought, and the system is fundamentally broken,” according to Bill Jennings of CSPA.  “The State Water Board has assured the Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that it won’t enforce Delta water quality and flow standards.  The temperature compliance point on the Sacramento has been moved upstream, eliminating crucial spawning habitat for endangered winter-run Chinook salmon.”

And draining reservoirs to keep water flowing to industrial agriculture in the western San Joaquin Valley means that “we’re not going to have enough cold water in the Sacramento system to keep fall-run Chinook salmon eggs alive in the gravel this fall,” according to Tom Stokely of C-WIN.

All four runs of salmon that rely on the Sacramento River – winter- and spring-run Chinook (both listed under the Endangered Species Act) and fall- and late-fall-run Chinook – are threatened this year by what will likely be inadequate flows or flows that are too warm. 

Stokely notes that various laws and regulations require sufficient cold water flows down the Sacramento system to maintain fisheries in good health. “But in May, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Water Resources asked the Water Board to allow lower Delta outflows so more water could be sent south of the Delta,” he said.  “The Water Board agreed without due process, in violation of its own rules [for] water right decisions – and with full knowledge of the impacts to the fish.”

BDCP would make all this worse

One of the many gargantuan problems with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is that it makes poorly-supported assumptions about available Sacramento River flows.  As the Bureau of Reclamation said in its comments on the BDCP’s environmental impact statement (EIS), “The current BDCP analysis assumes no operation impacts to upstream reservoir operations.”  But Sacramento River flows are controlled by the operation of upstream reservoirs.

If BDCP expects to provide “reliable” flows to export users, operation of the Peripheral Tunnels will have to involve operation of upstream reservoirs.  And we are seeing this year how that works, or doesn’t work.

The Bureau already foresees environmental and water rights problems associated with federal operations vis-à-vis BDCP.   “Analysis of upstream affects (sic) may not be sufficient to serve as NEPA compliance for Reclamation to accept BiOP [the biological opinions to protect fish] depending on the outcome of pending 9th circuit appeal filed by NRDC . . . .”  And “There is a cursory statement in the beginning [of Chapter 5] that changes to operation of the CVP and SWP cannot affect senior water rights holders and that none of those supplies would be affected.  It would be helpful to have more information to support that conclusion. . . .”

The National Marine Fisheries Service, too, is concerned about what goes on upstream to make the Peripheral Tunnels project work.  “The lack of analysis of upstream operations and related effects may render this document [the EIS] insufficient to provide NEPA compliance for the full suite of actions necessary to integrate the BDCP into CVP operations.”

So let’s raise the dam?

What do we do in California to avoid making hard choices about sharing a limited resource?  We build something bigger to store or move water.

The Bureau of Reclamation wants to add 18.5 feet to the top of Shasta Dam, a project that would, it is claimed, increase storage capacity 14 percent, provide drinking water to about 2 million people, and irrigate about 3 million acres of farmland, all while increasing survival of salmon populations in the upper Sacramento River.  Cost: $1.07 billion for this decade-old expansion plan.  An article from this past April summarizes the project.

The Bureau is talking about improving the “operational flexibility” for things like water temperature and water quality in the Delta watershed – an indication that this project is linked to operation of the proposed Peripheral Tunnels.  In fact, even Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, has suggested that increasing storage capacity by raising Shasta Dam only makes sense in conjunction with improving the Delta for water exports, since the amount of increase in California’s overall water supply is actually extremely small.

An article by journalist Dan Bacher summarizes the public response to this dam proposal at a meeting in Redding earlier this month.  Some concerns expresses there:

• The dam raise will inundate sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who have never been compensated for the land already taken from them and inundated when Shasta Dam was built.

 • A variety of recreational and other businesses will face dislocation and permanent loss of income.

•  The project would provide water to the federal Central Valley Project and deliver some exported water to the San Joaquin Valley, the East Bay Area, and Glenn and Colusa counties, but would not satisfy all contracts or Southern California water users.

•  The project doesn’t include a plan to get salmon above the dam to the McCloud River, where the Winnemem Wintu have been asking to have winter run Chinook salmon reintroduced.  (Shasta Dam eliminated the majority of historical spawning habitat for winter-run salmon.)

Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk told Bureau officials that the current cold water pool management isn’t producing the doubling of salmon populations as required by law under the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992 (CVPIA).  (In fact, a May analysis by the Golden Gate Salmon Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the salmon fishery is achieving only 20 percent of the population goal set by law.) 

“How do you expect extending the cold water pool for salmon at Shasta will produce more salmon when the current cold water pool management hasn’t made more fish?” Sisk said.

One resident noted that the lake has been filled only 11 times in its 59 years of existence – 19 percent of the time.  This suggests that the problem is not reservoir capacity but rather the way the dam is operated.

The system is over-subscribed, and it only takes a dry year – not even an actual drought – to show how fish, agriculture, and users all over California will suffer from the disastrously short-sighted water management decisions of the past half century.

The Bureau of Reclamation is accepting comments on the draft EIS (environmental impact statement) for this project until September 30.  Documents are here.

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