San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

Salinity levels falling

Stockton Record - June 20, 2005
By Dana Nichols

Salinity levels falling
Stockton Record 6/20/05
By Dana Nichols, staff writer

STOCKTON -- The clean Sierra snow melt gushing downhill at the moment is diluting salty farm drainage that normally pollutes the Delta.

It has been the sweetest spring in seven years, with the salt levels now in the San Joaquin River between Vernalis and Stockton only about a quarter of the maximum level allowed under state law.

But Delta farmers aren't celebrating this year's relatively clean water. Instead, they and the water agencies that represent them are locked in a bureaucratic war over if and when state laws controlling salt pollution in the Delta will be enforced.

Water in the south Delta is often salty, because dams normally hold all the flow of the main branch of the San Joaquin. That leaves the lower river stretches with little more than the often-polluted water that drains from fields. And big state and federal pumps near Tracy draw clean Sacramento River water out of the Delta, sending it to Southern California and creating a vacuum that pulls the salty San Joaquin River water west. Irrigation drainage from Delta farms also adds salt to the water.

The latest battle began in February, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources asked the State Water Resources Control Board for almost four additional years to reduce salt problems in the south Delta.

The state board punched back in May with an order to meet the standards immediately. But officials at the bureau and the DWR say they still are negotiating with the state board to find a way to avoid that order.

Meanwhile, local agencies have piled into the fight, with three Delta water agencies coming down in favor of enforcing the pollution rule and Stockton East Water District coming down against it.

Paul Sanguinetti, president of the board of Stockton East, said his agency actually wants to see the Delta cleaned up but fears that an immediate order to dilute salt pollution will hurt his district. Often, water out of New Melones Lake is used to dilute salty water in the San Joaquin River. That means less water behind the dam for agencies such as Stockton East, Sanguinetti said.

In recent years, Stockton East has not received its promised share of New Melones water, in part because it was used to dilute the San Joaquin.

Stockton East is suing the bureau over the missed deliveries.

New salt standards were supposed to go into effect April 1. But the bureau and the DWR failed to build some high-tech dams that would have helped keep salt out of the Delta.

The $100 million project to build so-called operable dams has been planned for years. Bureaucratic delays put it behind schedule, officials said.

Right now, temporary rock dams are used to reduce the amount of salt flowing into the Delta and to keep water levels high enough in the channels so farmers can pump water for their crops.

But the planned dams could be raised and lowered at will. That means when there is a high tide and plenty of fresh Sacramento River water in the central Delta, the dams could be lowered to allow sweet water to dilute the stagnant backwaters of Old River and Middle River.

When the big pumps crank up again or the tide ebbs, the dams could be shut to keep additional salt from being drawn west.

Jerry Johns, deputy director of the DWR, said the new dams should be done by the end of 2008 and will make it much easier to meet the salt-pollution standards, at least along Middle River and Old River.

"Rather than implementing new standards, let's wait awhile until we get the new barriers in place," he said. "We are preparing a plan for how these standards would be met."

Johns said that since the salt-pollution rule was adopted in 2000, several things have happened to reduce salt pollution. First, he said, farmers south of the Delta on the west side of the Valley have learned to control their irrigation to flush less salt into the San Joaquin.

Second, he said, scientists have better models for how to manage the salt.

But representatives of several San Joaquin County water agencies said they believe the political power of Southern California water interests is behind the delays on new salt rules.

That's because several of the proposed solutions involve reducing the amount of water sent south. Some of that water, for example, could be recirculated in the lower San Joaquin River rather than sent to irrigate farms.

Others have suggested the bureau could release water from Friant Dam on the San Joaquin to improve the lower river.

"They are delaying and dragging their feet on resolving the San Joaquin River problem," said Dante Nomellini, an attorney representing the Central Delta Water Agency.

Central Delta sent the State Water Resources Control Board a protest opposing the effort to delay the salt standard.

The South Delta Water Agency and the Contra Costa Water District also protested the proposal. #
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