Biological opinion for salmon adds to water worries

Issue Date: June 10, 2009
Steve Adler

Water users—urban and rural alike—have lost another round in the struggle over California's critically short water supply.

While issuing a final biological opinion relating to endangered species last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service called for action on the part of state and federal water regulators that would have a direct impact on water-pumping operations in California's Central Valley.

Acting under authority granted by the Endangered Species Act, federal biologists and hydrologists concluded that current water pumping operations in the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project should be changed to ensure survival of winter and spring-run chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, the southern population of North American green sturgeon and Southern Resident killer whales, which rely on chinook salmon runs for food.

To accomplish this goal, the opinion calls for several actions, such as increasing cold-water storage in Lake Shasta, regulating river flow rates to protect migrating fish and curtailing water-transferring pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to a greater degree.

The opinion covers the state and federal export facilities in the delta, the Nimbus hatchery on the American River and the operations of diversion structures, including the Red Bluff Diversion Dam and the Delta Cross Channel gates.

If the directives are put in place, they could reduce available water to cities and farms south of the delta by 300,000 to 500,000 acre-feet, a drop of 5 percent to 7 percent from water deliveries that are already drastically limited by drought and earlier court rulings related to protecting endangered species such as the delta smelt.

Gov. Schwarzenegger reacted strongly to the NMFS opinion.

"This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world's eighth largest economy," the governor said. "The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act."

Schwarzenegger said he would seek a meeting with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke "to discuss our concerns with these biological opinions, and my administration will be pursuing every possible avenue to reconcile the harmful effects of these decisions."

Agricultural groups expressed similar concerns.

"The biological opinion on salmon issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service brings more evidence that our California water system is broken," said Doug Mosebar, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. "California has outgrown its water supply system, and enforcement of the federal Endangered Species Act ensures that the needs of fish outweigh the needs of people.

"What we're left with is a situation that allows a handful of biologists to govern the water supply for a state of 38 million people. It will be that way until the people of California take control of their own future," he said.

Mosebar emphasized that California must develop, approve and finance a comprehensive California water plan that features new surface and underground water storage, improved water delivery systems and that stresses water-use efficiency, recycling and other strategies.

"It will be costly, but the cost of not acting will be higher. Already, thousands of people have been thrown out of work in agricultural and fishing communities. Thousands more urban and suburban jobs tied to California's food production are in jeopardy," he said.

Mosebar pledged that Farm Bureau will continue to press for a long-term solution that serves all Californians and that recognizes the crucial importance of maintaining locally grown food production for the state's growing population.

Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are struggling to keep their operations solvent and more cutbacks in water deliveries could have potentially devastating effects.

Thousands of farm acres lie fallow and will remain that way for this crop year. With an annual requirement of about 2 feet of water per acre, those who farm the valley's thousands of acres of almonds, pistachios, grapes and citrus run the risk of losing permanent trees and vines due to lack of water.

Sarah Woolf, a spokesperson for Westlands Water District, said federal regulators imposed this new regime of restrictions, cutbacks and prohibitions on California's water supplies without performing any environmental analysis of the potentially devastating effects.

According to Woolf, the Westlands Water District will join with other public water agencies in bringing a lawsuit to have the biological opinion set aside.

"They have rushed this biological opinion into place without bothering to prepare an environmental impact statement, without public hearings or the kind of independent public review that the law requires," Woolf said. "We intend to compel the National Marine Fisheries Service to perform the careful analysis it should have done to assess the potential harm this plan could do to public health and safety, communities and the environment.

"The implementation of these restrictions will prolong the recession, delay economic recovery, impact the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other goods and services, and adversely affect consumers throughout the country," Woolf said. "This new order is so extreme and far-reaching that its adverse impacts will extend to businesses throughout the state. It will further reduce supplies for homeowners and increase uncertainty for almost everyone who expects to have water when they turn on the tap."

Association of California Water Agencies Executive Director Timothy Quinn said the opinion adds another layer to a complicated landscape for California's water managers.

"These new requirements underscore the difficulty of making our half-century-old water delivery infrastructure work for both the environment and the economy," he said.

"Over the past two decades, we have lost about 3 million acre-feet of previously available water supplies to environmental regulation at a cost of roughly $1 billion annually, with little evidence these sacrifices are improving the environment," Quinn said. "We are at a point when we can no longer guarantee the reliability of our water supplies in any given year. People don't win and the environment doesn't win in this scenario."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project, said it has provisionally accepted the changes to its water pumping operations recommended by NMFS, and said it will begin to implement its near-term elements as it carefully evaluates the overall opinion. NMFS said that water operations will not be affected by the opinion immediately and will be tiered to water-year type. The opinion includes exceptions for drought and health and safety issues.

"The good news is that because of existing water conditions, the most damaging aspects of the biological opinion are not likely to take effect until much later in the year," Woolf said. "That means there will be time to ask the federal court to suspend this biological opinion and compel the federal fisheries agencies to comply with the law that requires the preparation of a proper environmental impact statement."

The operator of the State Water Project, the California Department of Water Resources, responded to the new biological opinion by saying it reaffirms the need for a comprehensive solution to water and environmental conflicts in the delta.

"The new opinion further chips away at our ability to provide a reliable water supply for California. A multi-species approach, as envisioned in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is the best approach to achieve habitat and species conservation and a reliable water supply," said DWR Director Lester Snow.

DWR will continue to work with the bureau, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NMFS, California Department of Fish and Game and others on the BDCP steering committee, to develop a collaborative habitat conservation plan for the delta, Snow said.

A week before this most recent announcement, the CVP issued an updated estimate of water supplies that increased allocations to 40 percent of contract amounts for customers north of the delta. But the agricultural water allocation for south of the delta remains at just 10 percent of contract amount. In its official statement, however, the bureau hinted that "improved hydrologic conditions create a possible 5 percent to 10 percent supply increase, if additional pumping capacity can be made available through the summer."

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.