‘The game gets tougher’

Department of Water Resources photo of a Delta smelt

The state promoted its twin tunnels plan yesterday, pointing to current water supply disruptions as an example of a need for long-term solutions.

Here’s my story.

And here are some highlights from a press call with DWR’s Mark Cowin and DFW’s Chuck Bonham:

• Cowin said he’s struck by the fact that water management challenges occur on a year-to-year basis, even while officials plan the long-term future of the Delta. “I can’t help but observe what a better situation California would be in if we were in the process of implementing or had implemented, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan,” he said.

• Bonham said that while no formal application has been filed, his department sees “great merit” in moving the point of diversion from the south Delta to the north Delta.

• Asked what steps were taken to prevent this year’s smelt carnage and why they failed, Bonham said protocol on how to manage the water projects were followed. “We did reduce pumping… As it turned out we continued to see dispersement of turbidity and smelt throughout the central and southern Delta and so we’re going to have to learn from that experience,” he said. “Perhaps there’s more we could have done proactively. We simply don’t know at this point.”

• He noted that no smelt have been taken at the pumps since last Thursday, when the pumping restrictions were tightened even further. But he wasn’t sure why and Cowin said it was too soon to determine a positive trend.

• Asked about engineer Bob Pyke’s alternative plan to take the water from the western Delta, Bonham said he wasn’t familiar with all the details. But he added, “The individual who is the proponent suggests we could take 8 million or more acre-feet of (water) and export it south. I’ll tell you that the Peripheral Canal was proposed to allow for 8 million acre-feet of deliveries by 2020. Many people claim that was unsustainable for (the Delta’s) ecology. So I’m curious about the details of what you proposed.” Cowin said the state has “analyzed and will continue to evaluate many, many alternatives with different sizes of intakes, different capacities and different locations.”

• Cowin said the state agencies are once again consulting with the fish agencies about how to reduce any more entrainment of smelt this year. They’ve already reduced pumping to minimum levels under the biological opinion, and are looking at what other options are available — shifting pumping from the state to the federal pumps, perhaps, or reducing the experimental collection of fish. “We’re open to any ideas we can put on the table,” Cowin said.

• This is not the first time that officials have come close to the limits for Delta smelt take under the biological opinion. Here are the numbers since 2009:

2009: 167 fish allowed, 24 taken

2010: 123 fish allowed, 92 taken (concern level exceeded)

• 2011: 210 fish allowed, 51 taken

• 2012: 2,487 fish allowed, 203 taken

• 2013: 305 fish allowed, 232 taken (to date — concern level exceeded).

Over two decades, the number of smelt taken has exceeded “concern levels” in 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000-05, 2010 and 2013, according to data later provided by DWR.

Tightening the pumping restrictions now will hopefully avoid exceeding the actual limit of 305 fish this year, officials said. “Better to be cautious now,” Bonham said.

• The plan is to continue using the south Delta pumps even if the point of diversion is switched to the north Delta. Asked if that won’t continue to create the same problem for smelt, Cowin said officials would be able to put in place protective requirements on the south Delta facilities that are “above and beyond” protections in place today. The proposal will include specific requirements for when either set of pumps might be operated.

• Of course, there are other fish that would be impacted by major plumbing changes. Although salmon will have to pass by the proposed new intakes on the Sacramento River, Bonham said that like the smelt, salmon don’t exactly benefit from the existing configuration. He said about 95 percent of the juvenile salmon on the San Joaquin River don’t get out alive. The number is about 60 percent on the Sacramento River. That’s “not acceptable,” he said.

Cowin acknowledged that moving the intake north will not solve all problems — officials will still have to manage the system to try and benefit both species.

• Why not just better screen the south Delta pumps, as many Delta advocates have demanded for years? Because that part of the Delta is a dead-end, Cowin said. At least fish on the Sacramento River will be able to pass by the new diversion facility.  “Even if you manage to screen some Delta smelt in the southern Delta, they’re not likely to survive so the investment really doesn’t pay off,” Cowin said.

• Asked to justify record water exports in 2011, Cowin said that water — still in storage —  is precisely what will help cities and farms get through 2013 in light of the current reduced pumping.

• Asked what effect the reduced water deliveries will have, Cowin said: “I don’t believe you can say there have been on-the-ground water shortages that have played out to date.” But, he said, the State Water Project is allocated at just 40 percent to date, and predicted a low allocation for the Central Valley Project as well. “That will have a direct effect on what farmers in the San Joaquin Valley do regarding planting crops and moving forward,” Cowin said. “I have no doubt that that loss of 700,000 acre-feet will have direct economic effects on California. They just haven’t revealed themselves to date, but I think they will over the course of the summer.”

• Cowin cited a newspaper article from the Sacramento Bee from June 2007, headlined “Delta pumps halted.” “Unfortunately, this kind of story is playing out much too often,” he said. “… The game gets tougher.”


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