Guest blogger: Rebuttal to yesterday’s media call: Opportunities Lost

From Cannon Michael (@agleader), this guest commentary and rebuttal to yesterday’s Pacific Institute and NRDC Media Call:

Northern Sierra 8 Station IndexCalifornia is experiencing a drought.  It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last.  This year only briefly started on par with the last big drought of 1977.  Storms in February and March have pulled California out of that driest trajectory – see chart – and more storms are on the horizon.

Key reservoirs, such as Shasta, Folsom and Oroville in the northern Sierras are low as well as the San Luis Reservoir south of the Delta.  These are key components of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.  Zero allocations have been made for the Federal, State and Friant Contractors – 4,000,000 acres of productive farmland has been allocated no surface water for 2014.  Looking back at the 1977 drought year, the Federal westside and Friant farmers all had 25% allocations, the State contractors had 40%.  So why are things so different now?  Why with the improving hydrology are we still seeing no improvements in allocation?

While some claim that regulation has nothing to do with the current situation, it is pretty easy to see that regulations are seriously limiting the amount of water we are able to export and store.  Let’s take a look at a chart that clearly shows the impact of these regulations.  For transparency sake the numbers on the chart can be found here:  We can see from the blue bars where the Outflow in the Delta spiked up during the February and March rain events.  The red bars represent the total pumping by the State and Federal pumps at Tracy in acre-feet.  The green bars represent the total capacity of the pumps if all the pumps were allowed to run.
Feb and March 2014 Delta Inflows vs Pumping (2)

Where the Delta smelt are ...So it isn’t hard to see that the difference between the total Delta outflow and the amount of water allowed to be exported is very large.  Over the past two months, much less water has been exported than what potentially could have been.  At a time when farms, communities and wildlife refuges are desperate for water, why haven’t we been able to utilize the water system and infrastructure we have in place?

The bottom line is that federal ESA restrictions on the pumps have limited exports to the levels you see in the chart.  These restrictions are designed to protect fish, but it is interesting to note that the fish haven’t been present around the pumping plants.  The number of fish taken at the pumps during the past two months has been extremely low.

Where the longfin smelt are ... So it isn’t that fish are being ground up in the pumps, the pumps are restricted because of flow outflow requirements, ESA Biops (OMR) and the ratio of water that can be exported versus inflow to provide salinity control in the Delta. Under the current SWRCB Temporary Emergency Order the outflow standard was reduced to 7,100 cfs.

All water users agree that salinity control in the Delta is critically important.  If the Delta salinity rises   it isn’t good for fish or farmers – some common ground.  What isn’t clear is the effectiveness of the ESA driven “reverse flow” restrictions which limit the flow of water towards the pumping plants.  The standards were temporarily relaxed and no impact on fish was observed.

Recently a bipartisan group petitioned Secretary of Interior Jewell seeking a temporary relaxation of the regulations that are limiting exports – only to try and capture a portion  of the current storm flows – after so much of the previous storm flows were lost to the ocean.  No final decision has been made yet, but the request has raised the ire of a select few environmental and fish protection groups.  They claim that temporarily relaxing restrictions and increasing exports “could” potentially harm fish – even though those asking for the relaxation have agreed to scale back if fish take increases.

So the “potential” jeopardy to fish is able to outweigh the “actual” jeopardy to millions of acres of farmland, communities, refuges, underground aquifers, and food supplies.  The truth is that the water situation for many could be much better in 2014 if a common sense approach was used.  Capture the precious water that is flowing out to the ocean and preserve it for uses that we can quantify.

There has been mention of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program and how flows were shut off this year to preserve water for human use.  The truth is that almost 180,000 acre feet of water was released from March of 2013 (during the drought) to the time when flows were shut off in February of 2014.  The month early shut off preserved less than 15,000 acre feet of water for use.  While the San Joaquin River Settlement called for 10 key projects to be finished by December 12, 2013, not one of them has been started.  The 180,000 acre feet released last year could have made a huge difference to the water outlook for many farmers and communities on the east side of the valley.  Instead it went into a river that is no different than it was in 2006.

The bottom line and the truth is that during this time of drought precious and significant amounts of water have been allocated to perceived fish needs instead of actual human needs.  Blaming the drought as the only cause of the current situation is a dishonest characterization of California’s water supply and the impact of environmental regulations on our ability to manage our water resources.

Written by Cannon Michael exclusively for Maven’s Notebook.  You can follow him on twitter at @agleader.

8 Responses

  1. Robert Pyke

    This piece is typical of the arguments that San Joaquin Valley agriculture make that actually hurt their position rather then generating sympathy. Presumably it is written to give false hope to the writer’s constituency, rather than to inform and influence anyone-else. Use of language like the “perceived fish needs instead of actual human needs” gives the game away. No mention of the fact that yo’all signed contracts that say you only get water if it is available. As one other example, the built capacity of the SWP has never been used because of a restriction imposed by the Corps of Engineers. Call that stupid regulation if you like, but do something about it instead of just being a cry-baby. And if you want to do something constructive, instead of supporting the BDCP which does nothing for you except allowing you to vent your anger at a two-inch fish, come up with some plan to extract more water in wet years so that the excess over current demand can be used to recharge your depleted groundwater. You might like to check for one description of the problem and a possible solution. But note that the site’s slogan is “not for bullies or cry-babies”.

    Robert Pyke Ph.D., G.E.

  2. Richard Smith

    People often say lost to the ocean. Are there not ecosystems dependent upon fresh water entering the ocean? If so, then that is not a loss.

  3. Gregory Reis

    Any time you see the words “lost” with regards to fresh water flowing to estuaries, terminal lakes, rivers, or even intermittent streams, you know you are reading propaganda designed to weaken our public trust heritage further than it has already been decimated (or “salvaged” as the case may be). So the author is pretty much saying that a speed limit slows him down, and without speed limits he could save so much time–look how fast his old unsafe car was designed to go! And because he didn’t run over any (animals, endangered species, fishermen, ocean fishing seasons, clean water, etc–insert here whatever you care about that industrial agribusiness might not value) while he was following the speed limit, and today when he exceeded the speed limit he didn’t run over anyone (despite the carnage strewn behind him), it proves we don’t need speed limits.

    The problem is that we allowed people to become dependent on illegal activity (in violation of the Public Trust and its expression in Fish & Game Code 5937 – see and to get up to speed on the history) when our dam and diversion infrastructure was built and when water rights were granted, and getting everyone back into compliance is not easy. It will take time and there will be complaining, but once we are there, healthy fisheries and aquatic ecosystems will grant agribusiness a lot more certainty than they have now. Their actions pushing fish down the road to extinction make things worse for themselves and everyone else. Healthier ecosystems will mean there will be more flexibility in granting permission to use the people’s water for lucrative private uses. We don’t need to push everything to the limit of collapse. Sustainable water use will make everything we depend upon more resilient and reliable–our ecosystems as well as our culture and economy.

  4. burt wilson

    No water is ever “lost” to the ocean! Water is meant to follow its natural path to the sea and we can divert what we need with the proviso that–in the Case of the Sacramento River–water flows past Chipps Island at 11,400 cfs in order to keep salinity out of the Delta! Mother Nature uses water to create a natural flushing action to save agriculture and the fisheries and the locals in the Delta. To say it is lost to the sea is not only inaccurate propaganda, it shows a lack of sensitivity to the subject in general.

  5. Chris Kern

    Water resources and water rights will always be a hot topic – especially for larger states like California, other areas such as Arizona, and states that are highly reliant upon agriculture as their main source of revenue, and much of which feeds America. While we have to be environmentally conscious and have to be on top of the abuses that come around from water use and the allocation of water rights as well as enforce regulations and restrictions that are in place – I believe there is another big issue regarding our water infrastructure (underground) and how bad the situation really is. Without our water infrastructure, it doesn’t matter what rights your have – if you can’t transport it and deliver it to the public and businesses that need it then that poses a real dire situation.

    Our underground water infrastructure is a $1 Trillion global issue that is responsible for billions of gallons of water being lost due to leaks, water main breaks, etc.. with aging pipes on average being anywhere from 20 – 50 years old. So while water rights are extremely important and having priority claims and a precedent for the proper use of water, the bigger picture and another part of the water equation needs to be looked at as well.


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