Important Facts for Today's Congressional Hearing on California Water Supply

This morning, members of the House Energy & Water Subcommittee are holding a hearing in Fresno regarding California's water supply.  While the committee will hear from one commercial salmon fisherman and one County Supervisor in the Delta, the majority of witnesses will represent the views of corporate agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley.  Judging by recent events, unfortunately, today's hearing may be long on theatrics and red herrings, and short on facts that show the limited impact of protections for salmon and other endangered species, and the economic benefits of those protections.  Below are a few of those important facts, which should come up in today's hearing, but may not:

ESA Protections Have Had No Impact on Water Allocations This Year

Westlands Water District and other water users have admitted in federal court that protections for salmon and other endangered species have had no impact on water supply so far this year.  They also acknowledged that ESA protections likely will not have any impact on water supply for the remainder of the year.  Last month, the federal district court in Fresno concluded that pumping restrictions are not likely to reduce CVP and SWP deliveries this year.

Protecting Endangered Species in the Delta Protects Fishing Jobs

Protections for salmon, delta smelt, and other endangered species protects California’s $250M salmon fishery and the thousands of jobs that depend on its health.  That is why salmon fishermen support protections for salmon and other endangered species in the Bay-Delta.  More jobs were lost as a result of the salmon fishery closure than were lost as a result of pumping restrictions.  Many Delta farmers support these ESA protections because they also protect water quality in the Delta.

This year, California’s salmon fishery will reopen, after being closed for several years.  The salmon returning this year are the first fish to benefit from recent Delta pumping restrictions, and are also benefitting from improved ocean conditions, which have resulted in a good run this year.  But salmon returns and the fishery this year are still below the long term average, and many runs are still in trouble.  Improving the health of California’s rivers and the Bay-Delta estuary is critical to the future of California’s salmon fishery.

Drought Was the Primary Cause of Reduced Water Supplies in Recent Years

Drought (not pumping restrictions) was the primary cause of water supply reductions in recent years, accounting for 75% of the reduction in supplies.  Yet even during the drought, the CVP delivered several million acre feet of water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley; for instance, the Exchange Contractors received a 100% allocation every year, and the Friant Water Authority received a 100% allocation (Class 1) in 2008, 2009 and 2010.  Even before the recent biological opinions, the CVP and SWP promised far more water than they can deliver; the State has found that in an average year, there are 8 times more water rights than there is water.  Westlands’s 2007 interim CVP contract explicitly acknowledged that full allocations are not possible in many years.

With the end of the drought, 2011 is shaping up to be a good water year for farmers, cities, fishermen and the environment.  This year, the Central Valley Project will deliver more than 7 million acre feet of water to farmers and cities in California, and the CVP and SWP will deliver more than 4 million acre feet of water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.   Not only will this yield good supplies this year, but districts are recharging groundwater banks and filling storage reserves for future dry years.   

Recently, Lack of Demand for Water Completely Shut Down the Delta Pumps

The massive pumps in the Bay-Delta estuary completely shut down in March because there was no demand for 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 more water.  So the pumps were turned off completely for several days, and have been running at low levels since then.  

Pumping Restrictions Help Ensure More Water in Dry Years

The California Department of Water Resources’ 2009 SWP Reliability Report admits that protecting salmon and other endangered species contributes to higher water allocations in dry years: pumping restrictions keep more water in upstream reservoirs for use in subsequent years, helping California better prepare for the next drought.

Water Exports Increased Significantly Since Passage of the CVPIA

Since passage of the CVPIA in 1992, which was intended to provide more water for the environment, water exports from the Delta increased substantially.  Even with pumping restrictions to protect salmon and other species, water exports from the Delta on average are similar to the levels in the 1980-90s, before the massive increases in delta exports over the past decade.

 Graph of CVP & SWP Exports

California Law Requires Reducing Reliance on the Delta and Strengthening Environmental Protections

In 2009, California adopted a landmark package of water legislation, and established a state policy of reducing reliance on water exports from the Delta and investing in regional tools like water efficiency, wastewater recycling, groundwater cleanup, and stormwater capture.  Instead of waiving environmental laws, this legislation strengthened environmental protections in the Bay-Delta.  These policies are the cornerstone of a 21st Century water policy for California, and are the most cost-effective way for California to prepare for the next drought. 

Congressional ESA Riders Threaten Long Term Solutions and Jobs

Congressional efforts to overturn protections for salmon and other species in the Bay-Delta estuary are contrary to State law and undermine efforts to develop long term solutions in the Bay-Delta.  Instead of seeking short-term “fixes” that worsen long-term problems – like waiving protections for California’s struggling salmon runs, and the thousands of jobs that depend on it, or trying to end programs like USBR’s water recycling program (Title XVI) – Congress should focus on long-term solutions that increase investment in these areas.

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Senior Attorney, Water program

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