– Tim Stroshane and Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla
On May 10, 2021, Governor Newsom expanded his drought emergency declaration to 39 additional counties, now 41 in all. His latest declaration tears pages from the playbook Governor Brown used in 2013 and 2014.
There will be at least one, and perhaps more, salinity barriers in the Delta to be installed by the California Department of Water Resources. This will disrupt waterways, create stagnant pools, and with established algae concentrations, more and probably larger harmful algal blooms (HABs) throughout the summer and fall. HABs pose dangers to public health through water contact to people and dogs, but also from emission of airborne contaminants.
There is as of yet no timeline for the Delta salinity barriers. Newsom’s emergency declaration suspends environmental review rules, so the barriers will apparently be constructed without a careful environmental review or public oversight. His proclamation suspends newspaper public notices but requires state water agencies to post information about their drought-related actions on their websites.
DWR is at water.ca.gov; the State Water Board is at waterboards.ca.gov.
Newsom’s proclamation also gestured in the direction of preserving existing cold-water pools in the upstream reservoirs, particularly at Shasta and Oroville lakes. This is likely too little too late. Unfortunately, these reservoirs are already extremely low, and their cold-water pools were dissipated over this past winter when supplies were shipped to southern California and San Luis Reservoir south of the Delta.
Northern California Indian tribes are deeply worried about the extinction of salmon this year since such extinction would constitute cultural genocide—salmon are profound symbols in their spiritual lives. The tribes and their allies conducted an important Day of Action last Tuesday, May 4th in Sacramento to demand action and protection from the Newsom Administration. Salmon extinction would also sully Newsom’s efforts to repair the State of California’s relationships with California Indian tribes.
The Governor also directed state water agencies, including the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, to facilitate water supply transfers and exchanges, adopt emergency regulations to facilitate water conservation, plan to curtail junior water rights throughout the state to protect water supplies and to evaluate in streamflow standards to protect fish and ecosystems.
In all, Newsom’s latest declaration signals that temporary “urgency change petitions” will be sought by the US Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources to waive water quality objectives in the Delta. This was done in combination with the addition of the False River salinity barrier in 2015 to restrict tidal water from circulating in the central Delta, which protects the freshness of water coming from the Sacramento River to the south Delta pumping plants.
Multiple fish species are on the verge of extinction or are greatly endangered in the Delta, and Governor Newsom’s solution is to allow these species, like Chinook salmon and Delta smelt, to become part of the sixth great mass extinction.
If Governor Newsom cared about the Delta, he would have taken steps last year, when we knew we were in drought conditions, to protect these species and to bolster state actions to curtail harmful algal blooms, which have only gotten more established and worse in the Delta. His spending plan on water offers nothing for meaningful harmful algal bloom mitigation, study or tracking – just more dead pools of water where these blooms can grow.
His announcement includes, however, a bailout for industrial agriculture with funding to repair the Friant-Kern Canal – which has sunk as a result of these growers over-pumping groundwater. Same for repairs to the CVP and SWP aqueducts which have been damaged by over pumping. (We will have more to say about this in the weeks ahead because the Delta cannot be the new source of water to compensate for groundwater plans.)
This latest proclamation ramps up the state’s and Newsom’s treatment of the Delta as its drought-year water switchyard, for its own convenience. It paves the way for use of the previous playbook that Governor Brown used in 2014 and 2015, when the drought was already out of control, and from which we have still not healed.