A first for Delta water pumping: Voluntary cutback to protect fish

On New Year’s Eve 2012, the Sierra had 140% of the normal December snowpack and rivers swelled with storm runoff. But strangely, a crippling reduction of water pumping had already begun in Northern California.

The muddy Sacramento River and mammoth water pumps had created a death trap for the protected delta smelt. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, the pumps had to be slowed, even though California was flush with water. Farmers and Southern California lost 800,000 acre-feet of precious water in the process —followed by months of almost no storms.

Scientists explained that the smelt are attracted to the muddied river flows during storms, and the big gulp of 25,000-horsepower pumps dragged muddy water toward the dangerous pump intakes.

Flash forward to this week, and the same scenario was lining up again. State and federal water leaders made a historic decision — slow down the pumps, let some water run to the ocean and protect the fish long before they get near the pumps. How is that different from 2012? This time, there was no Endangered Species Act restriction. It was a voluntary act in hopes of heading off a problem later. The loss this time might be less than a tenth of the 800,000 acre-feet in 2012, which left farmers and cityfolk scrambling for alternate sources.

It’s a gamble that might backfire, especially for west San Joaquin Valley agriculture, say farm water officials, who add that they support this temporary cutback. But if the delta smelt somehow wind up near the big water pumps at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta later on, federal restrictions will slow water exports anyway.

“We give the water projects credit for trying something new, but we still could wind up heavily regulated,” said Ara Azhderian, water policy administrator for the Sab Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, representing water contractors on 2.1 million acres of farmland. “Then all they’ve really done is add to the water lost.”

It may seem like a subtle change in the perennial fight over river water passing through the declining delta ecosystem where the delta smelt, winter-run chinook salmon and other fish species are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. But drought duress is forcing changes, say state and federal water leaders. <more>

Dec. 21, 2014 Fresno Bee