Delta report says fish protection lacks flexibility

Issue Date: March 24, 2010
Kate Campbell

As farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta face continued water supply cuts, a scientific report on actions to protect delta fish confirmed the need for more research and coordination.

The National Academy of Sciences, at the urging of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other congressional representatives, reviewed conclusions and methods contained in two biological opinions—one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on protections for delta smelt, the other from the National Marine Fisheries Service on protections for salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger noted that federal agencies have addressed fish problems chiefly by reducing water pumping from the delta.

"This report is an important step toward balanced management of the California water system," Wenger said.

He said the council's much anticipated 83-page report also confirms flaws in the federal Endangered Species Act. The report is the first of two detailed reviews of the science and research related to environmental problems in the delta and the federal response to those problems.

"The report notes that the existing water system can be managed better for people and fish," Wenger said, and "it reaffirms our existing water system must be improved. We believe the government must do a better job of managing the delta pumps, to make more water available to people while minimizing impacts on fish."

The academy's National Research Council concluded that reversing or even slowing declines of protected delta fish species cannot be accomplished immediately.

For delta smelt, the council said the actions triggered by the biological opinion have a sound conceptual basis. However, the report said there's "substantial uncertainty" regarding circumstances that should trigger a reduction in water exports into the state and federal water projects.

For salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon, the committee said actions in the biological opinion "are scientifically justified" but "given the absence of a transparent, quantitative framework for analyzing the effects of individual and collective actions, it is difficult to make definitive statements" regarding the merits of those actions.

The report said it's difficult to judge whether government actions to protect delta smelt and salmon might conflict with one another, in part because the Endangered Species Act does not require government agencies to take that into account.

Wenger noted the scientific panel concluded that in addition to the delta's water transfer pumps, a number of other factors—such as sewage treatment plants, non-native fish and other invasive species—present a "potentially large" threat to protected native fish.

"We know that other factors affect the fish," he said. "We look forward to the follow-up report from the Research Council that will explore those factors in detail and offer recommendations on potential, long-term solutions."

In looking for long-term solutions, Wenger said, "we must remember that the real solution is to increase water storage north and south of the delta, so water can be captured in high runoff periods to be used for environmental purposes in dry times, and by farmers to grow food."

"The National Research Council has given us a prescription for how science should be used to manage California's water projects more effectively to avoid the potential jeopardy to vulnerable species," said Tom Birmingham, Westlands Water District general manager. "Caution, cooperation and careful analysis are the keys to delivering the benefits of this prescription."

In reviewing the council's initial report, Feinstein said, "The finding that other stressors and predators—such as striped and largemouth bass, silverside and some species of catfish—may have a potentially large impact on endangered species in the delta is, in my view, extremely important."

For her, Feinstein said, "the key conclusion from this report is the need to integrate the two biological opinions, which would provide better clarity, better management and stronger scientific justification for all federal actions in the delta. I strongly urge the departments of the Interior and Commerce to take immediate action to implement the biological opinions with additional flexibility wherever possible, particularly with respect to the likely water limitations this April and May, so that we can ensure that any federal actions to restrict water supplies are absolutely necessary."

Applauding the report's call for agencies to work together more closely to protect fish species and limit the impact on water supplies, Wenger said, "The species-by-species approach of the ESA prevents overall analysis of the delta, and the report underscores the need to make the ESA more flexible and less punitive."

Water restrictions linked to ESA fish protections have punished Central Valley farmers with reduced water supplies.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation updated its forecast for Central Valley Project water deliveries south of delta for agricultural water service customers from 5 percent to 25 percent, while preliminary allocations for those north of the delta increased from 5 percent to 50 percent, under the most conservative scenario.

The bureau cited wet weather in February for the increased preliminary allocations, saying snowpack and improved storage at Shasta Reservoir and the federal share of San Luis Reservoir had improved.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the bureau is "working hard to find additional water supplies that would go to the south of delta contractors. We're trying to secure an additional 150,000 to 200,000 acre-feet of water."

Wenger said the improved water allocation will help to replenish groundwater supplies in regions plagued by water shortages, and will help assure availability of water for post-harvest irrigation of orchards and vineyards this summer.

"This is certainly a big improvement from the 5 percent supplies that the CVP promised last month," Wenger said, "and we appreciate the Interior Department's pledge to enhance the allocation further through actions that could add another 8 percent to 10 percent to CVP supplies. We will continue to press the department to make that additional water available as soon as possible."

(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.