Congressional Reps Get It Wrong: CA Drought Primary Cause Behind Low Delta Exports, Not Delta Fisheries Protections

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Contact: Steve Hopcraft 916/457-5546;; Twitter:@shopcraft; @MrSandHillCrane; Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla 209/479-2053;; Twitter: @RestoretheDelta

Congressional Reps Get It Wrong: CA Drought Primary Cause Behind Low Delta Exports, Not Delta Fisheries Protections
(Fish get blame as cover for water grab in H.R. 5781)

Stockton, CA- Restore the Delta (RTD), opponents of Gov. Brown’s rush to build Peripheral Tunnels that would drain the Delta and doom salmon and other Pacific fisheries, along with researchers from California Water Research of Santa Cruz, announced today that federal biologists’ findings demonstrate that Delta smelt and salmon protections had little impact on water pumping operations from the Delta in 2014.

Federal biologists reported to the Delta Stewardship Council at the November 20, 2014 meeting that Delta exports were governed by the biological opinions for Delta smelt and salmon just 36% of the time that they were in effect in the first half of 2014. Through scattered periods from February to May, state and federal water export pumps were restricted in the South Delta for Delta smelt protections a total of 21 days, while salmon biological restrictions totaled 36 days.

Deirdre Des Jardins, principal with California Water Research, explained, “This just means that the biological opinions were in effect, not that they had any real effect on water exports.”

Des Jardins elaborated further by noting that “Mike Chotkowsi, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Delta Stewardship Council in November that because of dry and low flow conditions, Delta smelt stayed ‘largely in the Sacramento River side of the estuary, and the result is we had relatively few concerns about Delta smelt. The Fish and Wildlife Service did not issue any determinations in water year 2014 that affected water operations. There were essentially no salvage of Delta smelt adults this past year and there was very low salvage of larvae.’”

Federal biologists also explained at the November DSC meeting that they found that the main constraints on exports from the Delta were reduced reservoir releases and low Sacramento River flows, according to their “Annual Report of Activities.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director with Restore the Delta added, “The biologists’ findings contradict claims that endangered species regulations protecting Delta smelt and salmon species are responsible for low Delta exports during the drought. Such claims are used by Congressional supporters of H.R. 5781, the supposed “drought relief” bill. Clearly, they do not understand the facts, or they are deliberating misrepresenting the facts so as to convince other members of Congress to support the water grab for big industrial growers in the Westlands Water District.”

Though this information was available in November, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 5781 on December 9, 2014. The Brown Administration in California and the Obama Administration in Washington, DC, both oppose the bill. Its prospects for passage in the lame-duck Senate are poor this month, but there could be renewed legislative battles over the bill’s provisions in 2015.

This report shows that operations of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project were largely due to the effects of drought and can’t be blamed on the Endangered Species Act,” added Barrigan-Parrilla.

Restore the Delta Research and Policy Analyst Tim Stroshane explained, “Reduced reservoir releases in early 2014 were due partly to low river flows and the need to harbor dwindling supplies to meet contractor demands. What supplies remained also had to be balanced with the need by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to protect cold water supplies in reservoirs for use later in the summer and fall to help salmon returning to spawn upstream of the Delta. In other words, these agencies were doing what the public expects: managing supplies for use throughout the year for both agricultural use and fisheries.”

The DOSS Group (Delta Operations for Salmonaids and Sturgeon) noted back on April 29 that “flows are so low in the Sacramento River that fish might not be moving or be able to avoid the rotary screw traps.” Des Jardins explained, “The California Department of Fish and Wildlife trucked Nimbus (American River, east of Sacramento) and Coleman (Battle Creek, north of Chico) hatchery fish to San Pablo Bay, 30 miles west of the Delta, to overcome low flows, which obstructed young fish migrating to the Pacific Ocean in April, May, and June.”

“Early in 2014, the Bureau and DWR persuaded the State Water Resources Control Board to reduce minimum Delta outflow requirements to 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), but this caused problems with salinity intrusion for both agencies’ projects,” said Des Jardins. Reducing Delta outflow requirements helped somewhat with reservoir storage, but it reduced the amount of outflow that normally blocks incoming tidal flows to the Delta. State board water quality standards limit pumping when salt concentrations are high in the Delta, as they were during much of 2014. And neither DWR nor the Bureau want to pump salt water to their customers south of the Delta. The report given to the Council stated that the main purpose of state board water quality objectives in effect was to manage salinity in the Delta.”

“With H.R. 5781 in place in 2014, the Bureau would have added insult upon injury delivering salty water supplies to the unemployed residents of Mendota and other drought-stricken communities of the San Joaquin Valley,” said Barrigan-Parrilla. “We’ve said all along about bills like this: they can’t make it rain in the valleys and snow in the Sierra. Blaming their drought year problems on endangered species in the Delta is just plain misplaced.”

The Smelt Working Group, hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, monitors conditions affecting Delta smelt under a 2008 biological opinion on how to protect and recover its population. As recently as 30 years ago, Delta smelt numbered in the hundreds of thousands of fish according to state fisheries data. Today, its population is estimated at a few thousand at best.


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