San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

Fines may be in the future for agencies that violate water rule

Stockton Record - August 09, 2005
By Dana Nichols

Fines may be in the future for agencies that violate water rule
Stockton Record 8/9/05
By Dana Nichols, staff writer

Officials in the state and federal water agencies that pump Delta water to Southern California could soon face fines of up to $1,000 a day if they violate salt pollution standards for the Delta.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates Friant Dam, which most years blocks fresh water from reaching the Delta, leaving only salty irrigation runoff in the lower San Joaquin much of the year.

Both the Bureau and the California Department of Water Resources operate enormous pumps near Tracy that send Delta water south, drawing salty San Joaquin River water deep into the Delta.

The State Water Resources Control Board has drafted an order telling the DWR and the Bureau to comply with tighter salt pollution standards that went into effect April 1.

The board could instate the order Oct. 24 when it holds a hearing on the pollution violations.

Delta farmers are the chief victims of the violations because they irrigate with Delta water, and high salt levels can damage or even kill their crops.

Officials with DWR and the Bureau have asked for three more years to comply with the rules. They say their agencies were unable to complete construction of $100 million worth of operable barriers that would have allowed them to control water flow in the Delta and reduce the amount of salt that penetrates the estuary.

Jerry Johns, deputy director of DWR, said that thanks to record rainfall and snow melt this year, the salt pollution is under control at the moment because enough water has been flowing down rivers to dilute it.

If there is less rain, next year will be the earliest that the tighter rules might force the agencies to pump less water south or dump more fresh water from reservoirs.

Johns said it is ironic, given the good conditions at the moment, that the state board may issue a cease and desist order. He said the issue only came up because DWR and the Bureau in February put the state board on notice that they wouldn't have the operable barriers ready and couldn't meet the standard for several more years.

"We were trying to do the good government thing," Johns said.

Farmers, environmentalists, and some state regulators say that the agencies do have options for reducing the salt pollution, including releases of fresh water from dams upstream.

Rather than releasing fresh water from Friant, however, the Bureau chooses to dilute the pollution by releasing water from New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River. Those releases hurt Stockton by reducing the amount of New Melones water the city can purchase.

The order prepared by the State Water Resources Control Board would require the two agencies to complete their operable barriers by 2009. Meanwhile, the order would require the agencies to report to the board on what they are doing to control the pollution, including curtailment of water exports from the Delta and releases of fresh water from dams.

The late irrigation season in September and October is typically the time of greatest danger for Delta farmers, when river flows drop and the lower San Joaquin carries the most irrigation runoff.

Even if the order goes into effect on Oct. 24, that might not be in time to help Delta farmers this year.

Dante Nomellini, an attorney for the Central Delta Water Agency, said he has little faith that the state board will act decisively to enforce the pollution rule.

"There is kind of a mixed signal coming out of the board," Nomellini said, noting that the board's Water Rights Division Chief, Victoria Whitney, on July 1 wrote a letter in which she said she would allow the Bureau and DWR to continue violating the salt standard until 2009.

Central Delta and several other water agencies have filed petitions asking the board to review her decision.

Dick Stevenson, chief of the Water Rights and Contracts Division for the Bureau of Reclamation, said environmental documents due out later this month on the proposed operable barriers would shed more light on what it takes to control salt flows in the Delta.

"The state board makes these orders and we make every effort to comply with the orders that the state puts down," Stevenson said. #

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