Threatened Fish Get a Boost in California Water Struggle

SACRAMENTO, California, June 5, 2009 (ENS) – Water pumping operations in California’s Central Valley by the federal Bureau of Reclamation jeopardize the survival of several threatened and endangered species of fish and whales, finds a formal biological opinion issued Thursday by the National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.

Federal biologists and hydrologists concluded that water pumping operations in the federal Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project should be changed to ensure survival of winter and spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, the southern population of North American green sturgeon and Southern Resident killer whales, which rely on Chinook salmon runs for food.

“What is at stake here is not just the survival of species but the health of entire ecosystems and the economies that depend on them,” said Rod Mcinnis, southwest regional director for NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “We are ready to work with our federal and state partners, farmers and residents to find solutions that benefit the economy, environment and Central Valley families.”

To ensure the opinion is grounded in the best available science, two independent peer review panels were conducted by the the CalFed Independent Science Board and the Center for Independent Experts.

Central Valley steelhead heading upriver to spawn (Photo courtesy California DWR)

As part of the final opinion, NOAA’s Fisheries Service has provided a number of ways the bureau can operate the water system to benefit the species, including increasing the cold water storage and flow rates. Such methods will enhance egg incubation and juvenile fish rearing, as well as improve the spawning habitat and the downstream migration of juvenile fish.

Changing water operations will impact an estimated five to seven percent of the available annual water on average moved by the federal and state pumps, or about 330,000 acre feet per year. Agricultural water use in California is roughly 30 million acre feet per year.

Water operations will not be affected by the opinion immediately and will be tiered to water year type. The opinion includes exception procedures for drought and health and safety issues.

“Today’s Biological Opinion on salmon reaffirms the need for a comprehensive solution to the water and environmental conflicts in the Delta,” said Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

“The new opinion, which could reduce Delta export on average by about 300,000 to 500,000 acre feet, further chips away at our ability to provide a reliable water supply for California,” said Snow.

While the NOAA Fisheries Service opinion estimates five to seven percent of available water would be diverted to benefit fish, Snow says the DWR’s initial estimates show the average year impacts closer to 10 percent, in addition to current pumping restrictions imposed by biological opinions to protect Delta smelt and other species.

“A multi-species approach, as envisioned in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is the best approach to achieve habitat and species conservation and a reliable water supply,” Snow said.

The NOAA Fisheries Service opinion further reduces the amount of water available to people, businesses and farms throughout California, says the State Water Contractors, a nonprofit association of 27 public agencies from across California that purchase water under contract from the California State Water Project.

In total, State Water Contractors deliver water to more than 25 million California residents and more than 750,000 acres of agricultural lands.

“Every time we get hit with new cutbacks, it’s like closing another lane on the water supply freeway. Pretty soon, the only way we’ll be able to move water will be by helicopter,” said Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors. “These are supposed to be reasonable and prudent actions, but we’re skeptical they actually adhere to those guidelines.”

Over the past two years, public water agencies have faced unprecedented water supply cutbacks. This year, 370,000 acre-feet of water – enough to serve nearly three million people for one year – has been cut to satisfy the requirements of the Delta smelt biological opinion.

Public water agencies throughout the state have filed lawsuits challenging the Delta smelt opinion. Recently, a federal court ruled in favor of Central Valley Project water agencies, ordering the federal fisheries agencies to comply with environmental laws and take into account the harm that the water cutbacks have on people.

“These cuts are crippling on our people and businesses – especially in the Central Valley where farmers are being forced to fallow their land and workers are being laid off,” said Moon. “Rather than piecemeal restrictions, we need to balance the needs of the environment and the needs of people with a collective plan for the Delta.”

The State Water Contractors’ case will be heard in federal court later this year.

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