[env-trinity] Miller demands answers on Delta

Tom Stokely tstokely at trinityalps.net
Wed May 11 11:03:13 PDT 2005


Miller demands answers on Delta

Contra Costa Times - 5/7/05

By Mike Taugher, staff writer


A Bay Area congressman and leading voice in California water policy is warning that immediate action is needed to avoid a potential ecological disaster in the Delta.


Rep. George Miller, responding to a Sunday report in the Contra Costa Times about a sudden, sharp decline in populations of several fish and other organisms, said the ongoing collapse could be a sign that the Delta is facing a crisis like it did in the early 1990s.


"What I want to know is, are we repeating history here, and are we putting too much pressure on the Delta?" Miller, D-Martinez, said in an interview Friday.


In particular, Miller questioned a basic tradeoff underlying CalFed, the highly ambitious multibillion dollar water program designed 10 years ago to avert another Delta water crisis. That deal assumes, in essence, that more water can be pumped out of the Delta for farms and cities in Central and Southern California if more money is invested in environmental improvements.


"The basic, fundamental assumptions that were made either were wrong or we put too much stress on the Delta," said Miller, the author of a 1992 law that rededicated Delta water from Central Valley farms to the environment.


Miller has drafted a letter demanding information from state and federal water agencies about when they recognized the problem and what has been done about it. He also wants to know why the crisis was reported in the Times before members of Congress were notified.


"Given the substantial state and federal financial investments in the CalFed program, it is incumbent on you to demonstrate that you are responding appropriately to the potential of an ecological disaster," the letter reads.


On Friday, Miller distributed the letter to Northern California members of Congress, asking them to sign it before the letter is delivered next week to the water agencies.


CalFed deputy director Keith Coolidge said state and federal agencies involved in the program are handling the situation appropriately and that it is too early to blame the declines on pumping because several other possible causes for the ecological decline exist.


"They're not sure yet how to narrow that down," Coolidge said. "It is possible that it's a combination of many different things."


State and federal scientists are compiling a research plan and hope to shorten the list of possible causes by fall.


The Times reported May 1 that scientists are deeply concerned about steep declines in the number of fish caught in annual trawls in the Delta. All of the major open-water fish species appear to be in decline, along with zooplankton. One zooplankton species that is an important food source for other species has fallen to extremely low levels, which could dramatically disrupt the food chain.


Scientists do not know what is causing the crisis, but the top suspected factors fall into three categories: invasive species, toxins, including pesticides, and increased pumping.


Critics of the Delta pumping note that water was moved out of the Delta at near record levels during the past two years. And the three highest pumping levels recorded are in 2000, 2003 and 2004.


"It is totally obvious. You have three of the highest exports in history (in the past five years) and now you have this problem in the Delta," said Tom Graff, a lawyer for Environmental Defense in Oakland. "Duh, is my reaction."


The decline in fish levels is the latest problem for CalFed, which has been levied with severe criticism from key state lawmakers over its plan to pay for its programs.


Some legislators have threatened to cut CalFed's state monies next year to a "life-support" level.


Since the CalFed program was finalized in 2000, it has spent or committed $3 billion, with $1 billion of that coming from state bonds, a source of funding that could begin running out for some programs next year. Last December, CalFed's governing board released an $8 billion, 10-year plan through 2015 that a key legislator, state Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, panned as highly unrealistic.


And lawmakers have been frustrated by CalFed's refusal, so far, to develop a more realistic financial blueprint for the coming decade. If legislators follow through with the threat and withdraw support for CalFed, that would complicate efforts by California's congressional delegation to win more federal money.


In response, Sen. Dianne Feinstein met Friday with key state lawmakers and California water officials in Los Angeles to discuss recent controversy over the finance plan.


"It was an opportunity for Senator Feinstein to meet with some of the leadership to discuss the importance of keeping CalFed alive and moving forward," said Feinstein spokesman Howard Gantman.


The Schwarzenegger administration is expected to make its request for CalFed funding as part of its May budget proposal. #


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