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Loss of water during storms causes frustration

Issue Date: March 16, 2016
By Kate Campbell
Water spilling from Nimbus Dam on the American River makes space for capturing more runoff and flood control. Behind the dam on Monday, Folsom Lake was at 116 percent of historical average. Shasta Reservoir, the state’s largest water storage facility, was at 103 percent of average.
Photo/Jim Morris, California Rice Commission

Steady rains during the past week have restored California reservoirs to storage levels not seen in nearly four years, but swollen river flows into the Pacific Ocean renewed concerns from water users and elected officials about lost opportunities as billions of gallons of fresh water headed out to sea.

By Monday night, Sacramento River flows were expected to exceed 100,000 cubic feet per second—equal to dumping about 750,000 gallons of water per second into San Francisco Bay.

Though encouraged by storage increases in Northern California reservoirs, water experts noted that very little water was being transferred from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into storage south of the delta for use during the summer and fall. They cited federal agency interpretations of Endangered Species Act restrictions to protect delta smelt as the cause.

San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County, on which south-of-delta farmers rely for summer irrigation, is beginning to accept Central Valley Project water, but it's a trickle. Operational levels have remained well below full, allowable pump capacity in the face of last week's deluge.

Because of a dry February, the Westlands Water District said it expects its south-of-delta agricultural water contractors to receive a zero CVP water allocation. Very little 2016-17 CVP water had been stored in San Luis by March 1, or since. San Luis Reservoir is jointly operated by the state and federal water projects. Westlands said almost all of the water on the federal project side is water that was saved or purchased in previous years by individual water users.

Farmers, agricultural groups, water managers and politicians keeping watch on the water situation say they don't understand why more water isn't being transferred from the delta during such high inflows and moved into storage for later use.

"Despite flood control efforts underway at places like the Fremont Weir on the Sacramento River or flood releases at Folsom Dam, federal fishery managers have been unwilling to permit additional supplies to be moved into storage for San Joaquin Valley and Southern California water users," California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade said.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said, "My question in this situation is: When is enough enough? During the past four years of drought, we were called on to help provide flows for the fish. Now, we have huge flows and it's still not enough for the fish. The environmental and fisheries communities have to figure out at what point there's enough water to support fisheries, and the excess needs to go to storage."

The biological opinion developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, required by the ESA, states that in some cases decisions about fishery needs are determined based on "biological intuition" that fish are being harmed, he noted.

"Farmers and ranchers, urban residents, businesses, are all accountable for their water use, but environmental water use is not questioned," he said. "We all want to protect the environment, but if we find those protections aren't working, we need to rethink our strategies."

Between Jan. 1 and March 6 last year, 1.3 million acre-feet of water flowed through the delta and 651,000 acre-feet were transferred to storage. During the same period in 2016, 2.8 million acre-feet of water flowed through the delta, but only 627,000 acre-feet were moved to storage.

"It's inexcusable that pumping levels have been reduced without sufficient evidence of fish mortality, even while biological opinions would allow more pumping," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement released last week.

Rather than pumping as much water as possible under the biological opinions, Feinstein said, pumping levels were ratcheted down for an entire month between mid-January and mid-February.

"In some instances, these decisions were made even though available data suggested no smelt or salmon were anywhere near the pumps," she said.

Stressing that there are "real-world consequences" to "intuitive" decision-making taking place in the delta, Feinstein said she had met recently with a young farmer from Firebaugh who said both he and his father had lost their farms because of water shortages, and that the farms had employed 450 workers who harvested 4,800 acres of cantaloupes and honeydew melons.

"Basing pumping decisions on better science and real-time monitoring is the least we can do," she said.

Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif said his organization agrees that the situation requires both immediate administrative action as well as legislation to allow greater levels of pumping—within the confines of the biological opinions—when storm conditions are present.

"But Sen. Feinstein should not be the only leader of her party to make this common-sense plea," Nassif said. "We urge Sen. Boxer and Gov. Brown to join Sen. Feinstein in calling for the federal agencies to act now, within their discretion, to capture and store as much storm runoff as possible before it's gone."

CFBF President Wenger said agencies need to be held accountable for water supply decisions that affect millions of people and could cost the California economy billions of dollars.

"We can understand curtailments during a drought emergency, and farmers are willing to do their part, but not moving water to storage is inexplicable during times of high flows like this," Wenger said.

(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.

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