[env-trinity] SF Chronicle June 13, 2010

Byron Leydecker bwl3 at comcast.net
Sun Jun 13 11:34:13 PDT 2010


 <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/artlist.cgi?key=IN&directory=Pink> Sunday
Insight


This time, will we end the water war?


Matt Jenkins

Sunday, June 13, 2010

 
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Lance Iversen / The Chronicle

Cattle grazing in Dozier in Solano County. Farmers and millions of city
dwellers all rely on water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River
Delta.

Image

 
<http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?f=/c/a/2010/06/13/INV31DRTR9.D
TL&o=0> Cattle grazing in Dozier in Solano County. Farmers and mi...
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TL&o=1> Pumps like this one on the Sacramento River in Red Bluff ...
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World Cup madness seizes planet 06.13.10

In the grand Western tradition of fistfights down at the water hole, no
fight has quite rivaled the one over the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.


In 1860, the delta - which is actually an estuary - was a marshy,
half-million-acre expanse filled primarily with tules. It saw a constant ebb
and flow between saltwater pushing in from San Francisco Bay and fresh water
flowing in from the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Mokelumne rivers. An entire
suite of fish, from iconic California species like salmon and steelhead to
less sexy understudies like the delta smelt, evolved to thrive in that
dynamic system. 

Today, though, after 150 years of spirited remodeling, the delta hardly
looks like a tide-flooded estuary. It has been transformed into a tangle of
waterways and of farms and towns that stand on levee-protected islands like
walled fortresses. And today, the delta serves - above all else - as a
supersize water hole for millions of farmers and urbanites who live as far
south as San Diego.

Runoff from roughly 45 percent of California flows from the surrounding
watershed into the delta. From there, that water is "exported" to more than
23 million people and several million acres of farms. Two gigantic batteries
of pumps - with a combined power equal to more than four Boeing 747s at a
full-throttle takeoff run - drive water toward Southern California and farms
in the San Joaquin Valley. A smaller set of pumps delivers water to Contra
Costa, Solano and Napa counties. 

That heavy-duty pumping has dramatically altered the hydrology of the delta.
The suction created by the pumps has broken the natural fluctuations between
saltwater and fresh in the delta and has created a constant freshwater
environment. And the Old and Middle rivers - tributaries of the San Joaquin
- now flow backward much of the year as the pumps draw water toward them.
The extensive effort to replumb the delta has wreaked havoc on the
ecosystems and native fish there, and it has created the kind of unvarying
conditions in which nonnative species thrive and outcompete the locals.

In 2004, scientists identified what has become known as the Pelagic Organism
Decline, a large-scale collapse of several species of native fish, including
the threatened delta smelt, longfin smelt and threadfin shad. The situation
has become progressively worse. Last year, fall surveys for delta smelt
found just 17, while populations of invasive jellyfish were thriving.

The implications of that shift extend far beyond simple ecological concerns.
"What do you want in the drinking water for 23 million Californians?" says
Bruce Herbold, an ecologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Do you want jellyfish and carp and slimy, toxic blue-green algae, or not?"


What's the right flow?


The effort to address the problem is proceeding on several fronts. Last
fall, the Legislature proclaimed two "coequal goals" for the delta:
providing a more reliable water supply for the state; and protecting,
restoring and enhancing the delta ecosystem. As part of that effort, the
Legislature directed the five members of an obscure agency called the state
Water Resources Control Board to develop a new set of "flow criteria" for
the delta. 

"We've got to get this right," says Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
"We're not going to have too many more chances to save the estuary."

In March, the board met to hear three days of testimony. "It's a huge
thing," says Art Baggett, a board member. "People have been trying to figure
this one out for decades." 

A host of other factors besides pumping, such as predatory invasive fish and
discharges from sewage treatment plants, clearly affect fish. And from the
start of the hearings, much of the testimony - particularly from
agricultural and urban water users and the state Department of Water
Resources, which is separate from the Water Resources Control Board -
questioned whether pumping and altered flows are the primary threats to
fish. 

"I think it's very naive to think that flow by itself will solve the problem
in the delta," says Baggett. "That's what I clearly heard." 

Regulating flows and pumping has always been a politically charged issue,
and it has brought unwelcome heat to the board before. In 1988, the board,
chaired by a veteran water honcho named Don Maughan, took up the issue of
what flows the delta needed. Finding that "biological resources have
declined and are not experiencing the same degree of protection as other
beneficial uses" - such as water exports for farms and cities - the board
took a dramatic stand. It proposed actually capping exports at 1985 levels
and allowing an additional 1.56 million acre-feet of water to flow through
the delta each year. That would, in effect, "straighten out" and reorient
the flows in the delta to something more closely approximating their course
before the pumps were installed. 

But it's also a lot of water - enough for roughly 12.5 million people for a
year - and the political blowback from agricultural and urban water
agencies, along with Gov. George Deukmejian's office, came quickly. The
proposal was deep-sixed, and the state board, whose members are appointed by
the governor, subsequently took a much softer approach on the issue. 

"The withdrawal was tremendous," says Michael Hanemann, a UC Berkeley
professor who worked as an economist for the board at the time. "Staff were
told, 'Stop being active; don't say anything.' "

In the years after, pumping continued to increase. By 2005, 20 percent more
water was being pumped out of the delta than the amount proposed by the
board in 1988. 


Why are fish in decline?


Jerry Johns is the deputy director of the state Department of Water
Resources, and in March, he appeared before the board to argue that a range
of problems factor into the fish decline just as much, or more, than pumping
itself. He argued that a lack of food for fish, caused by discharges of
ammonium and nitrogen into the delta, was the real problem - a point he made
so repetitively that the board members ultimately cut him off.

Nearly three months later, Johns remains adamant that pumping and altered
flows have been unfairly fingered as the primary cause of fish declines.
"What the Legislature has (the board) doing," he says, "is not terribly
helpful, I don't think, to the process."

Johns frequently points to the fact that, after a federal judge's ruling in
2007, the amount of water pumped from the delta has decreased quite
dramatically, yet populations of delta smelt have remained low. "We've
turned the water knob here pretty hard," he says, "and it doesn't seem to be
helping very much."

Bill Bennett is a UC Davis fisheries biologist who, like Herbold, serves as
an adviser to the state board on flow criteria. Together with several other
respected UC Davis researchers, Bennett helped create for the board a
conceptual framework for establishing ecologically beneficial flows. And he
says the transformation of the delta over 150 years has been so dramatic
that it has caused a complete regime shift. "There's no reason that the fish
should jump back right away," says Bennett, "particularly because of how
much the system has changed over the past decade."

And, while the Department of Water Resources and water users have raised a
recurrent theme of uncertainty about the effects of pumping, Bennett says
several things are certain: "What we're certain about is that delta smelt
are at the lowest levels ever. And we're certain that the flows in the
estuary don't go the way flows in an estuary should go." 

The members of the state board will vote to adopt flow criteria on Aug. 3,
and it is anyone's guess how strong a stand they will take this time. 

"I think the board members understand that this is high-stakes stuff," says
Assemblyman Huffman. "I would not be surprised if, given the appointed
nature of the water board, if there's not a bit of pressure being applied
from above."

At the end of a long morning of technical testimony in March, Bennett made
one final exhortation to the board members: "With all due respect, you guys
have a lot of power over what happens around here. And I really urge you to
think about widening your charge a bit."

Then he added: "Be brave. We really gotta do something different." 

Matt Jenkins of Berkeley writes frequently on water politics and is a
contributing editor to High Country News.





 

 

Byron Leydecker, JcT

Chair, Friends of Trinity River

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810 land/fax

415 519 4810 mobile

 <mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net

 <mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
(secondary)

 <http://fotr.org/> http://www.fotr.org 

 

 

 

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