San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

For the protection of Delta fish, groups try to halt pumping hike

Contra Costa Times - July 01, 2005
By Mike Taugher

For the protection of Delta fish, groups try to halt pumping hike
Contra Costa Times 7/1/05
By Mike Taugher, staff writer

Reacting to new evidence that the Delta has plunged into what appears to be its most severe ecological crisis, fishing groups and environmentalists joined forces this week to block efforts to draw more water out of the Delta for Southern California.

The state Department of Water Resources is proceeding with plans to increase its pumping capacity by 27 percent, despite confirmation by scientists of sharp and inexplicable declines among all major fish species in the Delta's open-water ecosystem.

Although pumping is among the suspected causes of the crisis, most scientists believe it is unlikely the pumps are solely to blame. Toxic substances and invasive species also are suspected.

Still, representatives of more than a dozen angling and environmental groups agreed at a meeting this week in Davis to launch efforts aimed at stopping additional pumping until the Delta's problems are figured out and new protections for fish are in place.

"State and federal agencies will take as much water out of the Delta as the public allows. We simply need to make sure our legislators know we don't believe another drop is appropriate," said Doug Lovell, a Bay Area representative of the Federation of Fly Fishers.

During the past three years, populations of the Delta's open-water fish have fallen dramatically. Delta smelt, federally protected as a threatened species, and young striped bass are at their lowest levels ever. Scientists have recorded similarly sharp declines among previously common fish and key food organisms.

No one knows why.

The discovery comes at a time when the state's Delta-based water planning initiative -- started a decade ago as a way to increase water supplies and stabilize the Delta environment, among other things -- is running out of money and has no sustainable finance plan.

Several top officials in that effort, called CalFed, have left in recent weeks.

At the same time, water users in the Central Valley and Southern California have been pressuring CalFed to make good on promises to increase pumping out of the Delta -- promises that were linked to assumptions that the program would improve environmental conditions in the Delta.

State water officials tentatively plan to release an environmental analysis of the pumping plan next month. That document has been delayed for months, and it could be delayed again.

Kathy Kelly, chief of the water department's Bay-Delta office, said it made sense to continue moving forward with planning since the higher pumping capacity would not be fully in place until 2009. If the state's pumps are determined before then to be a factor in the fish declines, Kelly said, regulatory agencies would not permit pumps to throttle up.

Opponents of the higher pumping rates say the plans should be halted immediately because they say it will be more difficult to stop the further along the planning gets.

"Everybody acknowledges that the estuary isn't just in trouble. It's at a point where, if we don't solve the problem, it's likely to be terminal," said John Beuttler, conservation director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The environmental document is expected to analyze the effects of increasing pumping capacity by 27 percent at the State Water Project pumps near Byron, along with plans to install barriers that will trap water in order to protect south Delta farmers from losing water.

The increased water draw from the Delta would not require any new pumps be built; rather, the pumps today are limited by regulations to about two-thirds of their physical capacity.

The plan is to raise the limit on that capacity from 6,680 cubic-feet-per-second to 8,500 cfs. Southern California and San Joaquin Valley water agencies would eventually like to have the limit raised to more than 10,000 cfs to quench the thirst of a growing state.

Kelly said the pumping capacity increase to 8,500 cfs would result in only slight increases in the actual amount of water sent to water users, primarily in Kern County and Southern California. She put the increase at no more than 6 percent on average, although that figure does not include water purchased from Northern California farmers and delivered to the south.

State water officials said they plan to present three options on how to use the increased pumping capacity and listen to the inevitable public debate that follows.

"We're trying to be responsive, if you will, to the new data that we have before us," said Paul Marshall, project manager for the pumping plan, which is called the South Delta Improvements Program. #

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