Westlands’ Legal Strategy Causes Less Water for Farming, More Dead Fish?

Last week, Westlands Water District filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to eliminate pumping restrictions in California’s Bay-Delta estuary that protect endangered salmon and steelhead runs.   Although salmon fishermen, environmentalists and the federal government all opposed the motion, the Court granted it.

High pumping levels causes water flowing down the San Joaquin River and past the Delta pumps to run backwards, away from the ocean and towards the pumps.  Under the biological opinions, pumping is limited by targets for these reverse flows in Old and Middle River, because as reverse flows in Old and Middle River increase, more salmon, delta smelt and other fish are sucked into the pumps and killed.  Of course, the number of fish that are killed at the pumps are a small fraction of those harmed by these high pumping levels and reverse flows (for instance, these reverse flows reduce the likelihood that salmon can successfully migrate out of the Delta even if they don't get sucked into the massive pumps). 

As of last week, the Fish and Wildlife Service thought that delta smelt were safely out of the zone of entrainment and this protection would not be required.  But increasingly negative Old and Middle River flows expands the zone of entrainment in the Delta and pulls more fish into the pumps, where they are killed.   

And after a weekend of increasingly negative OMR flows following the issuance of the TRO, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notified the Court today that more stringent pumping restrictions are necessary to protect other endangered fish species in the Delta.  (Of course, limiting these reverse flows will also provide benefits to salmon and other fish in the Delta, and will benefit fishermen and other jobs and communities that depend on healthy salmon runs). 

It’s quite possible that Westlands’ legal strategy caused the need for even more stringent protections: the increasingly negative reverse flows over the weekend that resulted from their motion apparently resulted in increased numbers of delta smelt, salmon, and other fish being killed at the pumps, which triggered more stringent protections than were required last week.   

If Westlands had not moved to enjoin the very reasonable -5,000 cfs Old and Middle River flow restriction, the Fish and Wildlife Service might never have had to impose more stringent protections.  The end result of their legal strategy may be less water for farmers and cities, and more dead fish -- an outcome that benefits no one, unless you’re trying to create a crisis.