Bill aims to add flexibility to rules on fish protection

Issue Date: February 17, 2010
Kate Campbell

In a move aimed at increasing the amount of water going to storage from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, congressional leaders propose a measure that could translate into more water for farms and communities south of the delta—while providing continued protection for fish species, including the delta smelt and migrating salmon.

Final language was not available before the Ag Alert® deadline, but the proposal would be attached as a rider to the federal jobs bill Congress will debate in coming days. The proposal is being sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Restricted water deliveries and the state's ongoing drought have forced the fallowing of around a half million acres of California farmland, created especially high unemployment in San Joaquin Valley farm towns and amplified the hardships of a punishing national recession throughout the state.

The proposal comes at a time when biological triggers set by federal agencies are used to adjust pumping levels at state and federal water transfer facilities in the delta, interrupting storage efforts during a time of high water flows.

"The modifications proposed in the rider to the jobs bill will provide a higher level of reliability in the water supply that more than two-thirds of California's residents depend on," said Elisa Noble, California Farm Bureau Federation National Affairs director for natural resources and public lands.

"We cannot continue to wrench vital water supplies on and off based on decisions of the moment," she said. "We need supply certainty, species protection and meaningful steps to restore the environmental health of the delta."

The delta pumps have been operating at reduced capacity to comply with protections in biological opinions issued by federal wildlife agencies. Some days, the pumps have operated near full capacity; other days, operations have been ramped down depending on complex and sometimes conflicting operational parameters.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said the amendment could provide for an emergency agricultural water allocation of 40 percent from the federal Central Valley Project for the next two years.

Even with the contribution of recent storms, the CVP allocation is expected to be lower than last year's 10 percent of contract amount for the valley's farmers. The preliminary allocation from the State Water Project stands at just 5 percent of contract amount.

The amendment being discussed now is similar in concept to legislation approved by Congress in 2003 that provided municipal water supply allocations to Albuquerque, N.M., that were being threatened by protections for the Rio Grande silvery minnow, a fish similar in size to the delta smelt.

"The purpose of the legislation is to support the Endangered Species Act while providing some direction to the departments of Interior and Commerce on how to implement the existing biological opinions," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District, which serves much of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. "The intention is to ensure flexibility in the way the reasonable and prudent alternatives in the biological opinions are applied."

Meanwhile, court actions to lift delta water transfer restrictions continue, as do the efforts of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan committee, which includes Farm Bureau representatives. BDCP is a comprehensive effort aimed at promoting the recovery of protected delta species in a way that also protects and restores water supplies.

In a hearing last week on pumping restrictions to protect the delta smelt, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger said that even though it appeared the federal agencies were not acting in good faith, his hands were tied because of the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the pumping restrictions despite the court's order the week before to increase pump operations for a 14-day period. The previous order was related to pumping restrictions to protect salmon.

Also last week, the BDCP steering committee announced it supports an analysis of a tunnel for water conveyance. The committee said it wants to compare that approach with canal alignments, which already have received significant review and analysis.

"This decision is not and should not be equated with the final selection of the conveyance element of the plan, nor is it a preferred alternative," the committee said in a statement.

A decision on the final plan and a preferred alternative for conveyance, which could include a canal, tunnel, through-delta option or a combination of the choices, will be made after further analyses and public input are received.

"There are many important actions and decisions being made right now that will impact California agriculture, its residents and its economy," said Chris Scheuring, CFBF Natural Resources and Environmental Division managing counsel. "As we participate in the process of addressing the state's water supply reliability problems and protecting the environment, Farm Bureau will continue to advocate for solutions that are in the best interest of farmers and our state."

(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.