In recent days, there have been various news stories about efforts to weaken environmental protections for fish in the Delta, in order to make more water available for people. After dry years in 2007 and 2008, the low rainfall total this year has resulted in low water levels across the State. But pointing fingers at environmental protection as the cause of the State's water woes isn't accurate, and represents a false choice between people and the environment.
There's no question that measures to protect delta smelt impacted water supply last year. However, DWR staff have acknowledged that the water supply impacts last year were substantially less than the 30% the agency estimated at the beginning of the year, closer to 17-18% total for the SWP and CVP (including both Table A deliveries and deliveries of "surplus" Article 21 water). Moreover, some of these pumping restrictions were made up by using environmental water from the CVPIA (b)(2) account.
More importantly, by and large the lack of water this year is a result of the lack of rain and snow over the past several years, not restrictions to protect threatened and endangered fish species like salmon or delta smelt. Since June of last year Delta pumping has not been limited by restrictions to protect delta smelt - there simply hasn't been enough water to increase pumping. Although the pumping plants are being operated consistent with the biological opinion for delta smelt, as the manager of the Central Valley Project recently stated in a sworn court declaration, "it is still the dry hydrology that is governing project operations and limiting Federal pumping." Admittedly, this may change later in the year if the projects begin sucking in large numbers of smelt, but thus far this year, there have been no actions to protect delta smelt that restricted pumping from the Delta. The fact that water districts across the State, including those, such as the Sonoma County Water Agency, that do not obtain water from the Delta, are imposing mandatory water restrictions demonstrates that the drought - not endangered species - is the primary driver of our current water supply situation.
On the other hand, protecting endangered species can protect water for people as well. Indeed, fishermen and Delta farmers agree that protecting delta smelt protects them, too, because it protects water quality for farming and help ensure there is enough water for salmon. Similarly, in order to ensure there is enough water for salmon to spawn, water managers should be required to maintain minimum levels of cold water in storage at the end of the year, as a type of "drought year insurance." That water can be used to provide cold water for salmon upstream and for pumping to people downstream. If such an insurance policy had been required in recent years, both people and fish might have been better off this year.
Even with the recent rain, it's shaping up to be a tough water year for people and fish. But while blaming endangered species for the water supply situation may score a few political points, it won't solve California's water woes (particularly when those restrictions aren't limiting pumping, anyway).
As we've written before, California can meet the water needs of fish and people by tapping into the Virtual River. Some of the most important solutions to our State's water needs will come from outside the Delta, including more efficiently using our existing water resources and creating new water resources, like water recycling plants and stormwater capture programs, which will help us meet our water needs without jeopardizing salmon, delta smelt, or killer whales. My guess is that Californians would rather choose a future that provides water for people while also protecting healthy salmon, smelt, and killer whale populations, rather than sacrificing the environment in order to meet our needs.