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Mercury News Editorial
POSTED: 02/24/15, 2:47 PM PST
California needs to get serious about protecting the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, one of Silicon Valley's most valuable water sources. The short-term needs of Central Valley farmers are significant. But they pale in comparison with preserving the long-term water quality of the estuary that provides water for two-thirds of the state's residents.
California took a significant risk when it waived some environmental protections last year for the Delta in order to pump additional water south to save acres of almond orchards. The results were not pretty. Tom Howard, the executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, admitted last week that he had erred in calculating how damaging the impact would be.
The Delta smelt count dropped to the lowest level in recorded history. The impact on salmon was equally horrendous. The state reported that 95 percent of the juvenile Chinook salmon that spawned in the upper Sacramento River died because of the poor water conditions. Rising water temperatures and lower river levels also resulted in the growth of invasive plants that damage water quality.
California can't let this degradation of the largest estuary west of the Mississippi continue. The state will determine in March how much water can be pumped from the Delta in the months ahead. Gov. Jerry Brown needs to demonstrate that he has his priorities straight when it comes to the Delta's delicate ecosystem.
Big Ag critics contend that limiting pumping of additional water from the Delta constitutes putting fish before people. It's a misleading argument. The Delta smelt is merely the canary in the coal mine when it comes to preserving the estuary's health. Further degradation to the Delta will ultimately threaten the quality of the drinking water for Northern California residents.
Central Valley farmers, who suck up 80 percent of the water used in California, have proved that they have an unquenchable thirst for additional water to irrigate their crops. They've already sucked dry their own aquifers and irresponsibly planted thousands of acres of almond orchards without sufficient guarantees that water would be available during California's inevitable drought years.
The public policy makers who will make the crucial decision on Delta pumping in March are the same ones who are also asking state residents to trust them to the care of the Delta with their plan to build two massive $25 billion tunnels to pump even more water south from the Delta.
California's drought shows no signs of abating as the final weeks of the rainy season approaches.
Central Valley farmers need to come up with an alternate plan that does not do further damage to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.