Water Users Turn off the Delta Pumps, and Smelt Protections Require No Water (This is Not an April Fools' Joke)

Listen to talk radio in California’s Central Valley long enough, and you’ll hear the refrain, “turn on the pumps.”  Of course, the massive pumps in the Bay-Delta estuary have never been completely turned off to protect salmon and other migrating fish.  During parts of the year, these massive pumps are turned down to protect drinking water quality, to allow salmon to migrate through the delta, and to meet other legal obligations.  Even when they’re turned down, the pumps still draw so much water out of the Delta that the rivers leading to the pumps run backwards, away from the ocean.  

But recently, something incredible happened: the pumps shut down completely.  The reason is remarkable -- no one wanted any water from the Delta.   Turning the pumps off had nothing to do with environmental protections.  San Luis Reservoir is completely full, and although the State and federal governments have been offering “surplus” water to contractors for several weeks, few contractors wanted any more water so the pumps were turned off completely for several days, and have been running at low levels since then.   

If you keep listening to talk radio in the Central Valley, you’ll also hear that fish protections are causing a “regulatory drought” and causing water to “waste” to the ocean.  But in the past few weeks, Westlands and other contractors have admitted in Court that pumping restrictions for salmon and other endangered species have had no impact on water allocations so far this year, and admitted that it is likely that pumping restrictions for endangered species will have no impact on water supplies this year.

Water Supply Impact from ESA on 2011 Allocations (to date) = 0%

Not only will there likely be no impact on water allocations from endangered species protections, but the California Department of Water Resources has acknowledged in its summary of the 2009 SWP Reliability Report that pumping restrictions in the Delta to protect endangered species actually contribute to increased water supplies in dry years: in other words, these pumping restrictions actually help California prepare for the next drought. 

2011 is shaping up to be a good year for farmers, cities, fishermen and the environment.  That’s great news. As my colleague Barry Nelson recently wrote, the CVP is on pace to deliver vast amounts of water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere in California (nearly 90% of maximum CVP contracts).  Everyone expects that SWP allocations will increase again this year.  And in addition to the contract allocation, the SWP has delivered a few hundred thousand acre feet of surplus water so far this year (pursuant to Article 21 of the SWP contracts), helping to recharge groundwater banks and rebuilding storage levels for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (indeed, MWD’s storage at the end of the year may be as high as it was at the beginning of the drought).

But good water years can be few and far between, and California needs to get ready for the next drought.  Reducing reliance on water exports from the Delta and investing in water efficiency, wastewater recycling, groundwater cleanup, stormwater capture, and similar tools are the cornerstone of a 21st Century water policy for California, and the most cost-effective way for California to prepare for the next drought.  In 2009, California made this state policy, and instead of waiving environmental laws, strengthened environmental protections in the Bay-Delta. 

And Congress?  Rather than tilting at windmills, and attempting to overturn scientifically sound protections in the Bay-Delta estuary, Congress should be focused on encouraging cost-effective investments in these solutions, which reduce our reliance on the Delta and help make California’s water supply more drought resistant.  Hopefully some Members of Congress have learned from their attempt earlier this year to defund water recycling programs, which was opposed by water districts across California because of the cost-effective water supply these programs provide.  Congress should to work on solutions that benefit all Californians, not so called “solutions” that jeopardize California’s $250M salmon fishery, the environment, and progress on long term solutions in the Bay-Delta estuary.  That’s particularly true in a year when the water users have turned the pumps off and fish protections aren’t costing any water. 

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