The troubled Delta tunnels project was officially downsized Wednesday, as Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration announced it would attempt to build a single tunnel in its effort to re-engineer California’s elaborate water-delivery system.
Unable to secure enough money from California’s water agencies for the original twin tunnels concept, the California Department of Water Resources said it would now try to build the project in phases: one tunnel now and a second tunnel years down the road.
The long-awaited announcement doesn’t appear to immediately solve the financial questions looming over the project, known officially as California WaterFix.
A letter to water agencies from DWR Director Karla Nemeth says the first tunnel would cost $10.7 billion. That’s much less than the price tag for building two tunnels, now officially pegged at $16.3 billion. But the one-tunnel option also is considerably more expensive than the estimated $6 billion to $6.5 billion that’s been pledged so far by participating south-of-Delta water agencies.
The delta smelt is on the brink of extinction. This species…has fallen to the point where it can hardly be found anymore.— Doug Obegi, Natural Resources Defense Council
You might wish you had as much power to affect the environment and the economy as the delta smelt.
Enemies have blamed the tiny freshwater fish for putting farmers out of business across California’s breadbasket, forcing the fallowing of vast acres of arable land, creating double-digit unemployment in agricultural counties, even clouding the judgment of scientists and judges.
During the presidential campaign, the lowly smelt turned up in Donald Trump’s gunsights, when he repeated California farmers’ claim that the government was taking their water supply and “shoving it out to sea…to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish.”
But the delta smelt couldn’t be as powerful as all that. The latest California fish population survey in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which along with San Francisco Bay is the species’ only habitat, turned up only two delta smelt in four months of trawling from September through December. That’s the lowest count since 1967, and a far cry from the peak of 1,673 in 1970. The count is especially worrisome because it came after a wet year, when higher water flows in the delta should have led to some recovery in the numbers.
The figures arrive just as the Trump Administration is proposing to loosen Endangered Species Act protections for fish in order to “maximize water deliveries” to users south of the delta—that is, farmers—according to a Dec. 29 announcement by the Interior Dept. .
The drought may be over and Central Valley farmers are getting more water than they have in years, but that hasn’t stopped congressional Republicans from resurrecting a bill that would strip environmental protections for fish so more water can be funneled to agriculture.
The bill is likely to meet the same fate as others before it, despite farmers having a new ally in the White House and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. After passing the House of Representatives last week, the bill faces near-certain death in the Senate, where California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris still have the power to kill it. President Donald Trump, who vowed during a Fresno campaign stop last year to “open up the water” for farmers at the expense of fish, is likely to never see the bill cross his desk.
Nonetheless, the legislation by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, offers a window into the unrelenting mindset of California’s agricultural lobby as it seeks to secure water for well-funded farming groups.
Some version of Valadao’s bill has been introduced off and on since 2011 without success. And, last year, with Feinstein’s support, farmers succeeded in pushing through a controversial bill easing some of the environmental restrictions on pumping water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for delivery to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities. Former President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
Gov. Jerry Brown won crucial early approval from federal wildlife officials Monday for his $16 billion proposal to re-engineer California’s north-south water system, advancing his plan to build two giant tunnels to carry Northern California water to the south even though much about the project remains undetermined.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave their green light by finding that the project would not mean extinction for endangered and threatened native species of salmon and other fish. The project, which would tap part of the flow of California’s largest river, the Sacramento, would change the way the San Francisco Bay Area, the farm-rich Central Valley and populous Southern California get their water from what is the West Coast’s largest estuary.
The twin tunnels, both four stories high and 35 miles long, would be California’s most ambitious water project since the 1950s and 1960s. Then, Brown’s father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, helped oversee building of the pumps, dams, and aqueducts that move water from the green north to more arid south. Supporters say the tunnels are needed to modernize and secure water deliveries from the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, now done by aging pumps that pull the rivers and the fish in them off-course.
Ellen Knickmeyer and Scott Smith, THE WASHINGTON POST
California’s powerful regional water districts are working alongside Gov. Jerry Brown to take on more responsibility for designing, building and arranging financing for a $15.7 billion twin tunnel project that would ship water southward from Northern California as they push to finally close the deal on the controversial plan, two officials working closely on the project told The Associated Press.
Talks among Brown’s office, state agencies and the water contractors have been under way since May that could lessen the state’s hands-on role in one of California’s biggest water projects in decades, according to the two sources, one a senior official involved in the project, the other an employee working closely on the project.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly reveal details of the talks.Some water district officials said the move, to be done by a group of regional California water agencies in what is called a joint-powers authority, or JPA, would speed up the mega-project, which they say is needed to modernize California’s existing north-south water delivery systems.
Critics who oppose the tunnels said the change could allow California’s big water districts to cut corners on issues affecting public safety and the environment.
The hatchery-reared fish will be trucked directly to Sonoma County from the state-run Mokelumne River hatchery near Lodi as part of a continuing effort to augment California’s declining Chinook salmon stocks, which took an especially hard hit during the prolonged drought.
Modeled after similar programs elsewhere on the California coast, the operation involves the use of a custom-made net pen to be positioned in the water, dockside, at Spud Point Marina in order to receive the smolts. The pen will provide a place for the young fish to adjust after their tanker ride and to acclimate to salt water before they head toward open water with the outgoing tide a few hours after their arrival.
The key advantage of such an effort is it allows the young fish to bypass the obstacles they would otherwise face getting downstream to the ocean, past unscreened water pumps and other dangers in the Sacramento River/San Joaquin River system, enhancing their chance of surviving to adulthood.
“The delta pumps just eat all those fish coming down, the little smolts coming down the river, and this makes sure that they make it northward to Bodega Bay, as a start,” said veteran Petaluma angler Victor Gonella, founder of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a sport and commercial industry group that put the project together.“This is just really good news for the fishermen in Bodega, the businesses in Bodega, anybody who loves salmon,” Gonella said. “We’re all hopeful that it will continue for years to come as we continue this process.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein just handed the future of California salmon and our fishing economy over to the Trump administration.
During the closing hours of this year’s session, Feinstein worked with congressmen representing big growers in the Central Valley to stick a knife in one of Sen. Barbara Boxer’s greatest accomplishments and also into California’s salmon and coastal communities.
Over the past two years, Boxer painstakingly crafted a bipartisan bill to fund water projects nationwide, a rarity in the age of a gridlocked Congress. That bill included restoration projects for Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes, funding for the lead contamination disaster in Flint, Michigan and other worthy provisions.
At the last minute, Feinstein, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Central Valley growers conspired to stick an anti-salmon rider on that bipartisan bill. That’s right. Feinstein forced Congress to decide whether to help Michigan children suffering from lead poisoning or California salmon and coastal communities.
Because of this double-dealing, Boxer was forced to lobby — unsuccessfully — against her own bill. This was the last thing she did before leaving the Senate after 24 effective years in office. We should all thank Boxer for her passionate work for California.
Feinstein’s bill gives the incoming administration authority to waive protections for San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta salmon that federal judges and biologists have found to be based on the best information available today. Under President Donald Trump, those weakened rules could result in a disaster for salmon and the jobs that rely on healthy salmon runs.
If you have any doubt about where Trump stands on California’s environment and fishing industry, last June — after the driest four years in state history — he said that there is “no drought” in California. He’s already promised to gut protections for California’s keystone salmon runs to deliver more water to the Central Valley grower who supported him.
Trump and Feinstein appear not to know, or care, that the rivers that flow into the delta and bay support the most important salmon runs south of the Columbia River. Sonoma County is doing a great deal to protect local salmon, but most of the salmon caught off the California and Oregon coasts come from the bay and the delta. Feinstein’s legislation allows Trump to devastate those salmon runs.
Evidence of what scientists are calling the planet’s Sixth Mass Extinction is appearing in San Francisco Bay and its estuary, the largest on the Pacific Coast of North and South America, according to a major new study.
So little water is flowing from the rivers that feed the estuary, which includes the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, Suisun Marsh and the bay, that its ecosystem is collapsing, scientists who conducted the study say.
Human extraction of water from the rivers is not only pushing the delta smelt toward extinction, they say, but also threatening dozens more fish species and many birds and marine mammals, including orca whales, that depend on the estuary’s complex food web.
The findings by scientists at the Bay Institute, an environmental group, underline conclusions already reached by state regulators and are intended to buttress the environmental case for potentially drastic water restrictions in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area, and among farmers in the northern San Joaquin Valley.
The State Water Resources Control Board moved last month to require that Californians leave far more water — 40 percent of what would naturally flow during spring — in the San Joaquin River and its three main tributaries, the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers, in an effort to save fish species.
That would double the amount of water protected from human use in most years, according to the board. Last year, only 10 percent of the San Joaquin River, the second-largest in the state, reached the delta, as the rest was diverted or stored upstream. The Tuolumne, which is San Francisco’s main water supply, is one of the state’s most over-tapped rivers, with about 80 percent of its normal flow directed to human uses.
Jon Rosenfield, the lead scientist on the Bay Institute report, said people take so much water from the rivers that the estuary’s entire ecosystem is in collapse.
“Our estuary is being choked” by a lack of fresh water, Rosenfield said. Over the past four decades, he said, urban users and farmers have diverted so much water from the rivers that in all but the wettest years, severe drought has become a permanent condition for wildlife.
UC Davis fish biologist Peter Moyle, who is not connected with the study and had not viewed its results, confirmed in a telephone interview that native fish species in the estuary face dire conditions.
With the critically endangered Delta smelt on the brink of extinction, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Bay Institute today called upon the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to issue emergency regulations and release the fresh water the smelt need to survive. Water is currently being diverted away from key waterways that feed the San Francisco Bay Estuary, depriving the fish of essential freshwater flows and limiting its chances of survival.
Following are statements from Defenders, NRDC, and The Bay Institute:
Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife: “Decades of state and federal agencies’ mismanagement of the San Francisco Bay Estuary, compounded by several years of drought, is causing catastrophic harm to wildlife in the estuary. The Delta smelt is circling the drain because this iconic estuary has been starved of water. We are calling on the State Water Resources Control Board to comply with its legal obligations and save this fish before it is gone forever.”
Kate Poole, Water and Wildlife Project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council: “The Delta smelt is the canary in the coal mine for the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary, and its condition indicates that the estuary is suffocating. Water agencies failed to heed the urgent call of biologists to keep more fresh water flowing through the Delta this summer to revive the ailing habitat. Now it’s time for the State Water Board to step in and stave off extinction of the first in a long line of imperiled Delta species, including native salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.”
Gary Bobker, Rivers and Delta program director at The Bay Institute: “It’s shocking enough to realize that what was once the most common resident fish of the San Francisco Bay Estuary is now the rarest, because of decades of mismanagement that the drought has only made worse. It’s unthinkable to contemplate that the Delta smelt may go extinct this year because state and federal officials continue to fail to act on the science that shows that providing a small portion of the flow that once sustained this species – and many others now in decline – could help prevent that from happening. This unique species’ fate is in the hands of the State Water Board now.”
Delta smelt have hovered close to extinction for years, but biologists say they’ve never seen anything like this spring.
“There’s nothing between them and extinction, as far as I can tell,” said Peter Moyle, a UC Davis biologist who has studied smelt and other Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta fish species for nearly four decades.
Last week, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife released the results of spring trawling surveys that track adult Delta smelt. The surveys found just handfuls of fish across the huge area where they are known to spawn. The low catches were a marked drop from even the record low numbers of Delta smelt tallied in 2015’s trawls.
Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the index is used in part to help biologists estimate the entire population of the fish in the Delta.
Since the surveys began in 2002, the highest the Delta smelt population has ever been is about 600,000. Last year, the federal government estimated there were around 112,000. This year, biologists say there are likely just 13,000 fish, Martarano said.
“That’s alarmingly small for a fish that only lives for a year in a body of water as large as the Bay Delta,” he said.
Moyle said he remembers when he first started doing fish research in the Delta nearly four decades ago, and the smelt were among the most numerous fish species, numbering in the millions. He said that the low numbers now mean any sudden change to the smelt’s habitat – such as a sudden shift in water quality from a small pesticide spill – could kill off the entire population.
“It’s the indication that we’ve totally failed in our ability to manage Delta smelt to keep them from extinction,” Moyle said.
The Delta smelt, widely viewed as a bellwether species indicative of the estuary’s overall health, are an ongoing flashpoint in California’s water wars. In recent weeks, the fish has also taken on symbolic importance in the national political debate.