News from Restore the Delta: 4/18/2014

We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence.
– Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

Hunger and thirst
Speaking of BDCP ….
2014 State of Our Rivers Symposium

Hunger and thirst

By Jane Wagner-Tyack

UOP economist Dr. Jeffrey Michael reports in an April 7 blog post that between 2007 and 2012, despite the drought in 2009, San Joaquin Valley agriculture made a clear shift toward permanent crops. Over that period, acreage of field crops (like cotton, hay, grain, and alfalfa) increased by 2 percent. Acreage of fruit and nut crops (like almonds, pistachios and grapes, crops that can’t be fallowed in a dry year) increased by 21 percent. Meanwhile, acreage of vegetable crops decreased by 12 percent.

And between 2008 and 2011, the value of California almond exports grew by 49 percent. This PowerPoint presentation by Blue Diamond shows graphically how much almond production and exports have grown and where the greatest export growth is occurring: Asia.

Bear this in mind as you hear about the threat to the nation’s food supply from cutbacks in water to California agriculture. Here’s a panic-filled example from the Wall Street Journal, showing lettuce prices increasing by 34%. The thing is, the San Joaquin Valley growers crying the loudest about water delivery reductions that keep them from being the “bread basket of the country” have reduced the amount of that kind of crop that they grow. Lettuce production is highest in Monterey County, especially the Salinas Valley, and in Imperial County, which gets its water from the Colorado River (a watershed not affected by protections for Delta smelt or Chinook salmon). Of course, we can’t expect East Coast consumers to appreciate those kinds of geographical distinctions when they look at the cost of lettuce.

Bottom line: San Joaquin Valley farmers can make more money growing almonds for export.

That’s why, in what may be the worst drought in 500 years, agribusinesses that have been contributing less than half of one percent to California’s economy have hijacked the state’s water delivery system. They are using impoverished farmworkers and fears of food scarcity as an excuse. They say they are protecting the state and national food supply, but many of them export the majority of what they grow, leaving Californians to import much of the food we eat.

Just two giant and politically powerful agricultural water exporters, Westlands Water District and Kern County Water Agency, together used more export water to irrigate arid land in the first decade of this century than Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District combined. (Westlands and the Southern San Joaquin Valley’s Paramount Farms, not surprisingly, are also major political contributors. See this Sacramento Bee editorial.) Even other San Joaquin Valley farmers understand that these cropping practices are not sustainable, particularly when the backup for surface water is a drastically declining supply of groundwater.

California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, and a cabal of San Joaquin Valley congressional representatives are facilitating this theft of the state’s public trust resources, pressuring state and federal regulators into a cascade of broken promises that were supposed to protect fisheries.

In January, U.S. representatives David Valadao, Kevin McCarthy, and Devin Nunes announced new legislation that would turn on the Delta pumps in the event of any rain and end restoration flows in the San Joaquin River.

At the end of January, the State Water Resources Control Board approved a petition from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project for a Temporary Urgency Change for Delta water quality and flow standards in order to conserve water supplies in upstream reservoirs for health and safety. (Those upstream reservoirs would have had more water in them if they had been managed with an eye to potential drought.)

In February, Senators Feinstein and Boxer introduced the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014 that would, among other measures, allow delivery of more Sacramento River Water to contractors.

In March, the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors asked Interior and the Department of Commerce to loosen the conditions of the biological opinions (BiOps) protecting fish, to allow greater diversions from the Delta because of the drought emergency. Senator Feinstein and some California House members supported that request.

Then it rained. On April 1, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that they would temporarily relax protections for fish in the Delta to export more water from those storms. Normally in a critically dry year, a rule designed to protect threatened steelhead from getting sucked into the export pumps would take effect, requiring that no greater amount of water be exported from the Delta than is flowing into the Delta from the San Joaquin River. Even in a normal year, export flows would be no greater than 1,500 cubic feet per second, but this relaxation of the rules allowed them to go as high as 6,500 cfs.

The California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have now released a proposed 2014 Drought Operations Plan, a proposal that waives key water-quality standards and endangered species protections in the Delta to allow for more water to be sent south to cities and farms.

In promoting her Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014 (S. 2198), which locks in a specific inflow-export ratio to allow more water transfers to contractors south of the Delta from April 1 through May 31, regardless of water availability, Senator Feinstein talks about “flexibility.” Euphemisms like “temporarily relaxed water quality standards,” “temporary urgency measures,” and “flexibility” should be called out for what they mean, which is the probable extinctions of salmon species like those that have had to be trucked to San Francisco Bay because of low flows in the Delta.

What the current drought crisis shows us is that all rules and laws protecting the Delta and fisheries are subject to rollback, even when the cause behind the crisis is mismanagement. The present actions of state and federal water officials are a warning that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) would never be managed according to the best available science or governed for the health of the estuary. It would be operated to drain every last drop out of the system, much of it for unsustainable agriculture in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

As per-person water usage drops in Los Angeles, and urban users around California confront the reality of water scarcity, skepticism is growing about whether the public should be asked to invest more in a costly statewide water delivery and storage system that is vulnerable to control by wealthy and powerful interests.

Speaking of BDCP….

Less than 60 days remain for public comment on the BDCP, and planners still haven’t said how the tunnels project will be financed, built, or operated. That information is supposed to be set forth in a binding Implementation Agreement (IA). As of today, there isn’t one.

It looks like state and federal water contractors have commitment issues regarding a project for which the engineering is only 10% complete.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have those important details about funding and implementation as you consider the 40,000 or so pages of documents that ARE available?

Nevertheless, we do advise everyone to comment. Starting next week, we’ll be providing examples of comment letters. Stay tuned for that.

2014 State of Our Rivers Symposium

by Stina Va

At the 2014 State of Our Rivers Symposium, DWR Deputy Director Paul Helliker gave his usual vague presentation of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. He echoed the usual statements that the BDCP was proposing significant habitat restoration and protection for endangered Delta species and he continued to falsely assert that the BDCP was going to protect the Delta from earthquakes, climate change, and levee failures. Fortunately, nearly every other speaker at the conference made it fairly clear that he was alone in the belief that the BDCP is a coherent conservation plan.

While Helliker listed each conservation measure of the BDCP (CM1 – the tunnels – and over 20 other measures to protect 57 endangered species), California Sportfishing Protection Alliance’s Bill Jennings brought attention back to what the BDCP really is—a large scale institutionalized water export project that would be managed by a historically biased State. He pointed out that the State routinely violates their own standards in favor of exporting water. In one of several examples, Jennings spoke about how salinity standards on Old River were violated for 868 days in 2007. Jennings also criticized the theory of adaptive management, adding that the State has adaptively managed the Delta out of existence. In Jennings’ words, adaptive management is a wonderful concept that frequently fails. The fish screens that the State proposes to use in the North Delta have never been used and the experiments that will evaluate whether they will really help fish or not won’t occur until after the $67 billion BDCP tunnels are built.

Given the fact that several “conservation measures” in the BDCP are to be financed from state and federal treasuries, South Delta Water Agency manager John Herrick questioned in his presentation, “How much of the payment going to habitat is going to be mitigation for the project to recover fish that somebody else killed?” In Helliker’s BDCP presentation, he did acknowledge that every 5 years (Note: after the tunnels are constructed and in operation), they will be obligated to have a certain amount of habitat restored. Evidently, taxpayers are going to be paying to mitigate regular damage that will be caused by operation and construction of the BDCP tunnels.

Kim Delfino, California Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profit group that has been engaged in the planning process of the BDCP for several years, expressed agreement with Jennings and Herrick in her presentation, showing heavy skepticism and dissatisfaction with the BDCP. Delfino confirmed that if BDCP were to recover species, it could not meet exporter needs. She stated clearly that the BDCP will not benefit endangered species.

The final speaker of the 2014 State of Our Rivers Symposium, federal fish biologist Donnie Ratcliff of US Fish and Wildlife, could not give a direct opinion on the BDCP, but as he highlighted the various successes he had with small scale habitat restoration projects, he indicated that large scale projects, such as the BDCP, are a lot more difficult to model, and it is much harder to predict their success.

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