As water flows to ocean, delta disputes continue

Issue Date: February 3, 2010
Kate Campbell

As a panel of leading scientists convened last week to examine information used to restrict water transfers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta on behalf of protected fish, the state's water supply situation took on new complexities.

Water districts and elected officials in the San Joaquin Valley criticized the U.S. Department of the Interior, charging it had mischaracterized a water-supply announcement.

Then, at the end of the week, water agencies serving the western San Joaquin Valley asked a federal court for a temporary halt in water restrictions intended to benefit delta smelt and salmon.

The Westlands Water District and the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which serve farms and communities in western Fresno and Kings counties, filed for a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court in Fresno.

The water agencies asked the court to issue a temporary order that would allow some of the fresh water currently being lost to the Pacific Ocean to be channeled into storage.

"Under the federal rules, the more it rains, the more water we lose," said Tom Birmingham, Westlands general manager. "It's particularly tragic because there's no evidence the fish are actually benefiting from these restrictions."

One set of restrictions is costing California 10,000 acre-feet of water a day, Birmingham said. Westlands and the other water districts served by the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority say they worry that a second set of restrictions could stymie efforts to save an additional 8,000 acre-feet of water a day.

Even though water has been streaming through the delta as a result of heavy January rains, pumping from federal and state water plants has not been increased, because of restrictions on behalf of fish.

"The relief we are seeking doesn't threaten the delta smelt at this time of year," Birmingham said. "The fish agencies' own surveys show that the vast majority of the smelt are currently residing in northern and western parts of the delta, far away from the pumps."

A hearing on the motion for the temporary restraining order was scheduled this week in Fresno.

At the request of Congress and the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Academy of Sciences convened a special panel of biologists and fisheries experts to review the science underlying the federal rules that have hamstrung water transfers through the delta. The panel heard testimony last week during several days of meetings held at the University of California, Davis.

"Farm Bureau supports a thorough examination of the science that underlies decisions to protect threatened species," said Elisa Noble, California Farm Bureau Federation National Affairs Division director of livestock, public lands and natural resources.

"It's the heart of the rainy season, and with so much water due to flow through the delta in the coming weeks, it's crucial that we look closely at the science that's affecting the operation of the delta pumps," she said. "If it turns out that the restrictions don't truly benefit the fish, then the government should act quickly to restore movement of project water to, and through, the delta diversion facilities."

Among last week's developments, the Interior Department announced that 350,000 to 400,000 acre-feet of water would be made available for the upcoming growing season. Although the department's news release characterized the water as an augmentation to current supplies, water agencies said that it is instead carryover water that farmers have already paid for, saved and stored in San Luis Reservoir for pre-plant irrigation.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, blasted the department's announcement and said the way the action was presented suggested that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who made the announcement, was "either out of touch with reality, completely misinformed, or trying to dupe the valley."

Costa said that the Interior Department's announcement that carryover water would be made available earlier than in years past is helpful for planning purposes, "but to claim somehow that this is additional water or more than what is already owed to the water users is at best a misstating of the facts, and at worst a falsehood."

Meanwhile, the economic damage from water shortages in the San Joaquin Valley continues, Birmingham said, stressing that the region "must have some relief. The Westside cannot survive another year of devastating cutbacks in our water deliveries. People are losing their homes, their businesses and their life savings. The harm these restrictions are doing is irreparable."

Despite the January storms that returned the Sierra Nevada snowpack to above-average levels (see related story, Page 7), Birmingham said the western San Joaquin Valley's water prospects "remain as if we are in a fourth year of drought."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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