San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

Plan to release more California delta water stirs controversy

Associated Press - November 30, 2004
By Juliana Barbassa

FRESNO -- A plan to increase fresh-water pumping from the San Joaquin-Sacramento river delta is pitting Central Valley farmers who want the water for their crops against environmentalists and delta farmers who fear the move will undermine years of fishery and water quality restoration efforts.

The proposal would increase the amount of water pumped out of the delta, a fragile ecosystem that already supplies water for 22 million Californians as far south as Los Angeles and irrigates millions of acres of Central Valley farmland.

The increased flow would help stabilize the amount of water delivered to farmers in the western half of the Central Valley, giving them the ability to better plan for long-term or higher-value crops, farmers in the region said. Those farmers, who have had their water flows limited over the past decade as water was diverted to wildlife refuges, say it is time they get the water they were promised.

But environmentalists say the move could reverse years -- and millions of dollars worth -- of ecosystem restoration work. Reducing fresh water flows to the delta could affect its water quality by increasing salinity and temperature, possibly threatening the salmon that have been slowly returning to the region's rivers, advocates say.

Opponents to the plan also say it undermines a decade of cooperation under CalFed, a state-federal water management program designed to balance the water supply demands of urban and rural users with environmental considerations.

"This is an old-fashioned water grab," said Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Since 1992, CalFed has overseen the spending of about $500 million in state and federal funds to reverse some of the damage that 150 years of mining and water diversion did to the delta. The effort has helped restore the delicate balance between fresh water from the mountain rivers and salt water from the San Francisco Bay that is essential to salmon and other species of marine and plant life.

The restoration effort has brought back a naturally reproducing salmon population that had almost disappeared. In the early 1990s, only a few hundred winter-run Chinook salmon were making their way through the Golden Gate Bridge, through the delta and up Sierra Nevada rivers like the Tuolumne, Merced and Sacramento. Now, thousands of fish fight the currents to make their way up the rivers every winter.

At the center of the current controversy is the state-operated Harvey O. Banks pump, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Tracy. The linchpin in California's Byzantine plumbing system, it currently sucks more than 4 billion gallons of water a day out of the delta. The proposal would increase its pumping limit by up to 25 percent.

For the past 12 years, water agencies that serve farmers in the Central Valley have endured federally mandated water cutbacks so that water quality could be improved and fisheries could be restored, said Tupper Hull, a representative of Westlands, an agency that delivers delta water to nearly 600,000 acres of farmland.

Growers working about 1 million acres in the western valley have been getting only between 40 percent and 70 percent of their water allotment, while nearly 1 million cubic feet of water they had relied on annually was used for wildlife restoration.

"The impact of that was felt down in the Central Valley," said Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Reclamation. "It's been very hard to give them the water they need."

Now, farmers are pointing to the increased numbers of salmon swimming up Sierra Nevada rivers, and saying it's time for state and federal agencies to send them their share of water.

An increased flow of fresh water from the delta would give Central Valley farmers a more reliable water supply, they say.

"It would let us do better planning, and it would give us more confidence to invest in higher-value crops," said Jean Errotabere, who farms 3,500 acres of lettuce, almonds, garlic and other crops in the Westlands.

"It would help us plan better. When we make investments, we can't have uncertainty be a part of it," said Dan Errotabere, who farms 3,500 acres of lettuce, almonds, garlic and other crops in the Westlands. He is the irrigation district's chairman.

But environmental groups and farmers who work the low-lying islands inside the delta's meandering canals want the water cutbacks to Central Valley farmers to remain in place. They worry that the increased pumping will affect the delicate ecological balance of the delta.

That could degrade water quality, kill thousands of endangered fish and further alter river flows, said Nelson of the NRDC.

Water quality is "absolutely a question of survival" for delta farmers, said Dante John Nomellini, who represents the Central Delta water agency. The agency serves about 120,000 acres of farmland in western San Joaquin County.

It doesn't make sense to take more water out of the delta while water quality is still a worry for farmers, urban users and environmentalists in the region, Nomellini said.

"We could blend this into a workable solution that could be beneficial to the exporters, the people in the delta and the fish and wildlife," he said.

"But there's a lot of work to be done."#

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