Tag Archives: california salmon

California Water News Flash: The Pumps Are On

Allowing that one person’s misconception is another’s gospel truth, I still have the impulse to correct others when I hear them say something that I know or believe to be, well, wrong. So here’s something from the current battle over California water that always makes me want to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”

San Joaquin Valley water interests and their allies, including members of Congress, want more water than they’ve gotten the last few years. Their biggest problem is that nature has not cooperated. The previous three winters were drier than normal, and the amount of rain and snow that fell on the state’s watersheds were far below normal. That circumstance happened to coincide with Endangered Species Act litigation that has led, for the time being at least, to limits on the amount of water the state and federal water projects are allowed to pump from the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Those limits, set by federal wildlife agencies and designed to protect the Delta smelt and runs of chinook salmon, have led the aforementioned water interests to scream that the Delta pumps have been shut down, that farmers are being wiped out and valley communities sacrificed for a few lousy fish.

Now, whatever you happen to think of the last part of that formulation–that those who are trying to figure out how to save the fish want to see the San Joaquin Valley “dry up and blow away” (as Rep. Jim Costa, a valley Democrat, put it)–you shouldn’t have to think much about the first part, that the pumps have been shut down. That’s because it’s not true. The pumps are running, day in and day out. The major destination for a lot of that water is the San Luis Reservoir, a key storehouse for valley water, and it’s filling up.

But despite all the readily available data on Delta water shipments, the untruth that the pumps have been switched off is too good a propaganda point for some people to pass up. Rep. Devin Nunes, who represents much of Fresno and Tulare counties in Congress, says about water resources policy: “Its [sic] Simple: Turn on the Pumps.” Since last session, he’s been pushing a bill called the “Turn on the Pumps Act.” (The bill is, in fact, very simple: “In connection with the operations of the Central Valley Project, neither the Bureau of Reclamation nor any agency of the State of California operating a water project in coordination of the Central Valley Project shall restrict operation of their projects pursuant to any biological opinion issued under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, if such restrictions would result in levels of export less than the historical maximum levels of export” (italics mine).

Got that? No limits on pumping to protect endangered species, period, unless the limit results in as much or more water being pumped out of the Delta than the projects have ever pumped.

Rep. Tom McClintock, a Southern California Republican who relocated to and won the northeastern California congressional seat in 2008, is also a source of unrelenting “turn on the pumps” rhetoric. Earlier this month, he issued a broadside against Democrats in the House Water and Power Subcommittee for blocking consideration of Rep. Nunes’s excellent bill. “For the sake of humanity, Madam Chairwoman and my Democratic colleagues, turn on these pumps.” You have to admire the way these folks keep their rhetoric on a short leash.

If I were in Congress myself, I’d rise to tell my good friends and respected colleagues, “I have good news. The pumps are on! Even as I speak, rain is sweeping over your districts and on your thirsty constituents, helping fill the reservoirs not just with water, but with hope. And in that spirit of optimism, here’s a nonpartisan, nonsectarian suggestion: Pray for more rain. I am. That way, the reservoirs will keep rising, agriculture will get its water, and maybe there will be some left over for smelt and salmon and the thousands of people who depend on them. And maybe we won’t have to hear you shriek ‘Turn on the pumps!’ again.”


Filed under Current Affairs

California Water: Face of the Drought

It’s California Water Saturday in these parts. Let’s see if I can keep it simple:

Continued wet weather means most of the state’s reservoirs are filling up. But if your definition of drought means all reservoirs brim-full, no, we’re not out of the woods yet. (My KQED Radio News colleague Amy Standen just finished a story that will air Monday: “Is the Drought Over?” (I have a starring role in her accompanying blog post.) Another take on our drought status comes from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Over the last couple of weeks, this report has shown a dramatic contraction of the area of the state affected by drought.

The face of the drought: At the end of January, the state Department of Water Resources issued its latest drought update (18-page PDF). The most interesting aspect of the document is the way it adopts the Westlands Water District as a proxy for the drought’s impact on agriculture throughout the state. It’s not a subtle touch, either: the front and back covers of the drought report contain dramatic photographs, courtesy of Westlands, of dead orchards. We’re to understand from the context that drought has killed these productive groves. Inside the report, there’s a writeup on Westlands, complete with a table on page 12 showing the reduction in planted acreage since 2006–a little misleading to use as an index year since it was a decidedly wet year when no one had to worry about water supplies. The table does show that virtually all field, seed, and truck crops have experienced dramatic reductions since ’06 (exception: wheat, for which acreage grew by 53.4 percent, and garbanzo beans, which had a 42.5 percent increase in acreage). At the same time, though, the Westlands table shows that the acreage in tree and vine crops–remember the dead orchards?–has increased by 20 percent since the drought began. Most of that jump has been in almonds, which grew from 55,000 acres in 2006 to 70,000 acres in 2008 before falling back to 67,000 acres last year.

Now, there is no question at all that the district, which includes about 1,000 square miles along the western fringe of the mid-San Joaquin Valley, has been hit hard by the shortage of water. It’s dry country and because the district was formed relatively recently (in the 1950s), it’s near the bottom of the totem pole for getting a share of the water pumped into the valley from up north. Yes, land has been fallowed and fieldworkers have lost jobs–pretty much the same way that’s happened during every dry cycle. The question is whether Westlands really represents the face of the drought across the state. Reading about the plight of the district, one would hardly guess that the state’s harvest of processing tomatoes–by acreage the biggest vegetable crop in California–hit an all-time high in 2009 (data by way of the U.S.D.A.’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, in its latest “California Vegetable Review“).

Of course, the processing-tomato harvest doesn’t tell you much, either–by itself. And neither does Westlands, if your interest is understanding the wide impact of California’s water challenges. Of course, if your interest is putting the grimmest possible face on the drought to scare up support for a new round of dam- and canal-building–which is exactly what many environmentalists say the Department of Water Resources is doing–then Westlands will do just fine as a poster child.

Delta pumps–turn up the volume: The biggest water news of the week came out of the Fresno courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Oliver W. Wanger (W. is for Winston, not Wendell; and those who know say his last name rhymes with “ranger”) in a case featuring Central Valley chinook salmon, federal fishery and water managers, and (again) the Westlands Water District. On Friday, Wanger issued a temporary restraining order that blocks a federal plan to protect endangered chinook salmon that migrate back and forth through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The plan limits, but does not halt, exports from the Delta to avoid sucking fish into the pumps that send water south. Westlands and other water districts argued that pumping limits are letting hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water escape into the ocean instead of being shipped to San Luis Reservoir, the main storehouse for San Joaquin Valley irrigation supplies. Letting the water flow out to sea would amount to irreparable harm to communities depending on it for growing crops and providing jobs.

Wanger agreed, issuing a 23-page decision that sets aside the federal protection plan for two weeks, pending a permanent ruling. He found a) that recent pumping in the Delta hasn’t killed enough endangered winter-run chinook to threaten the species’ survival; b) that our wet weather has caused flows that ought to be captured now; and c) that the federal defendants have brought this ruling on themselves by failing to assess the impact of their salmon plan on people. A portion of the ruling that’s gone generally unnoticed, as far as I can tell, acknowledges that it’s unknown what effect increased pumping will have on migrating juvenile winter-run salmon. That being the case, “the temporary restraining order … shall initially be for a period of fourteen days, subject to renewal by plaintiffs upon an affirmative showing that neither the species’ nor their critical habitat will be jeopardized by continued injunction” of the pumping limits (emphasis mine). In other words, Westlands and company will need to prove that the increased flow of water they’re getting hasn’t caused a big jump in the number of salmon killed off at the pumps. (You can follow the dead salmon count at home, if you’re inclined: the federal Central Valley Project, which runs one set of the pumps in question, publishes a daily report, Chinook Salmon Loss Data.)

The key piece of Wanger’s decision, though, is not really about the amount of water being pumped out of the Delta. It’s about the winning legal strategy (in this court, anyway) used by Westlands and its allies in arguing that the agencies trying to enforce the Endangered Species Act must weigh their actions’ impact on human communities. The judge seems to be saying, “Yes, you can protect plants and animals that we humans have driven to the edge of extinction–but only if protecting them doesn’t harm us humans.” Wanger made a similar ruling last year in a case involving endangered species protection for the delta smelt. Legal Planet, an environmental law blog from UC-Berkeley and UCLA, called his findings “curious” and said, “Judge Wanger is asking the agency to balance on an absolute knife edge, ensuring that it doesn’t deny farmers a single drop of water that the fish don’t critically require.”


Filed under Current Affairs

Journal of Self-Promotion: Salmon Edition

The big project for the last three weeks has been my first radio feature–on Northern California’s coho salmon populations nearing extinction. The story involved lots of driving–too much for someone doing a story that in many ways is about the larger state of our environment. And it involved lots of anxiety over whether I could sort through all the “tape” (I actually used a flash recorder) and manage to tell a coherent story that reflects the complexity of the subject. Overall, I’m happy with the way it came out. The audio to the story is embedded below, and here are a couple other story links for good measure:

KQED’s Quest: Saving California’s Coho Salmon:
Quest blog: Rewriting the coho’s story

QUEST on KQED Public Media.

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