12:04 PM on April 11, 2014
Photo by Dr. Jon Rosenfield, The Bay Institute
In the last month, federal and state agencies that are charged with protecting our environment, its endangered species, and our clean water have caved in to political pressure from elected officials – including, most prominently, Senator Dianne Feinstein -- to provide more subsidized water to a small group of wealthy farmers. The damage to our fish and wildlife, including six endangered species that rely on freshwater flow into and through our San Francisco Bay Estuary could be catastrophic. All of this is being accomplished under the cover of a drought panic, even though it is now understood and accepted that human health and safety water needs will be met this year.
Background -- You probably know by now that California is in the middle of a bad drought. The state’s largest reservoir – its Sierra Nevada snow pack -- had less than 15% of its normal volume of water at the beginning of February. To make matters worse, many of the man-made reservoirs in the northern part of the state had less than 60% of their normal amount of water in storage at the end of February. These were among the worst levels ever recorded.
So, it was no surprise when, at the beginning of February, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) petitioned the State Water Board to relax water quality regulations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Maintaining these water quality standards during a drought requires these two agencies to release water from upstream reservoirs in order to keep encroaching salt water at bay. DWR and USBR proposed instead to store water in upstream reservoirs for potential future human needs and to maintain cold water resources that might allow successful spawning and incubation of our endangered winter-run Chinook salmon during the summer months. They also proposed opening some special barriers that allow more water to make it from the Sacramento River (in the north) to the giant water export pumps in the south Delta.
In February, these actions seemed well-reasoned, prudent, and probably necessary to manage limited supplies during a lethal drought. But everyone agreed that the decision to hold water upstream to potentially benefit the Chinook salmon that will spawn this year would have dire consequences for the current offspring of Chinook salmon and steelhead that spawned last year; these juvenile fish rely on fresh water flows into and through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as they migrate during the winter and spring.
In March, the US Fish and Wildlife Service wrote: “Continuing severe drought in the Central Valley of California is expected to produce conditions [that] could lead to the loss of an entire year class of juvenile fall Chinook …” Similarly, biologists with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and the federal National Marine Fisheries Service began a “Herculean effort to stave off a fishery disaster," saying that if they did not carry juvenile fish downstream in trucks, we would “run the risk of perhaps losing an entire year-class of salmon" in the Central Valley’s rivers and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Then it started to rain.
Precipitation at the end of March and beginning of April improved water storage at most of the State’s largest reservoirs, though they are still critically low compared to normal levels. Snow pack in the Sierra Nevada is still only 1/3rd of what is normal for this time of year, but that’s better than it was two months earlier.
This unexpected rain and snow came just as juveniles of threatened fish (including, Central Valley steelhead, two populations of endangered salmon, and the economically valuable fall run Chinook salmon) were migrating downriver and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta on their way to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The rivers of California’s Central Valley swelled with runoff from the storms and this should have helped the migrating fish get through the Delta, where survival is chronically poor. That runoff could also have restored water quality in the Delta, benefitting other native fish species and in-Delta farmers who rely on the flow of fresh water. But it didn’t.
What happened instead reveals the radically unbalanced state of California’s water priorities.
Declaring that human health and safety needs for water in 2014 were met, DWR and USBR nevertheless petitioned the State Water Board, as the rains began, to weaken water quality protections in the Delta for a second time. Furthermore, they asked the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to waive protections that are specifically designed to keep California’s endangered salmon from going extinct in critically dry years like this one.
The beneficiaries of relaxing legal protections for water quality and endangered species: a small group of industrial farm operations in the southern San Joaquin River Valley (the “San Joaquin Exchange Contractors”). Because they have “senior water rights”, these contractors were already promised more water this year than most other water agencies in the Central Valley. Worse yet, the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors planned to sell the additional water on the open market. They pay about $7/acre-foot for their water; though they will likely sell that water to others for more than $1000/acre-foot.
Despite protests from multiple environmental non-profits, including The Bay Institute, and fishing organizations, NMFS and the State Water Board eliminated certain clean water and endangered fish protections in order to allow the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors to reap a windfall.
As the late-March rains continued, politicians stepped up their calls to export as much water as possible to agribusinesses … and, once again, the fish and wildlife agencies capitulated.
On April 1, under intense political pressure from the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and a small group of Congressmen, DWR and USBR asked NMFS to ignore the basic minimum protections for imperiled Central Valley steelhead so that the giant water export pumps owned by the state and federal government could continue to capture the freshwater pulse from the rains. The federal fish agency granted industrial agriculture’s wish without objection, turning a blind eye to their own regulations and responsibility to protect resources that belong to all of us.
Using a severe drought as an excuse, federal and state agencies eliminated environmental regulations in order to benefit a small group of wealthy farmers. Remember: these waivers were not necessary to protect human health and safety; even DWR admits that environmental regulations are not causing water shortages this year (because the drought is caused by…. a drought!). The consequences are likely to be severe, and the damage may be permanent.
Currently, water export rates at the federal Central Valley Project pumps in the south Delta have jumped to levels that would be high even if we weren’t in a drought. This makes rivers in the south Delta run backwards (towards the pumps) and leads to fish being sucked into the South Delta water export facilities at the highest rates of the year (despite the euphemism, these “salvage” fish will certainly die). But the real damage of water exports and fish entrainment is many hundreds of times greater than number of fish bodies counted at the pumps. [Read our report to understand the many devastating impacts of water export operations].
The rains should have made things better for California’s farmers, and fish and wildlife and those who depend on a healthy environment for their livelihood, but California’s wealthy and well-connected agribusiness elite took all the benefit for themselves.
Environmental and fishing organizations are unified in their protest of this blatant water grab. We have demanded, and are waiting to see a specific accounting of how March’s magical rains will be allocated to benefit all Californians – our environment and our fishing fleet, as well as our farms. We are also expecting the responsible state and federal agencies develop an actual plan for protecting environmental resources through the rest of the year (as opposed to their reactive, waiver-of-the-week approach to drought management).
Only time will tell what damage has been done to steelhead and winter run, spring run, and fall run Chinook salmon. The entire Bay-Delta estuary ecosystem may have been damaged in ways that we cannot now predict. One casualty of this drought that is not likely to recover quickly is the credibility of government agencies that are supposed to prevent (not encourage) extinction of our native species.