There’s no other way to say it. The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s decision Wednesday to export less water south from the Delta than is legally allowed defies common sense.
Rain and snow finally have returned to California following three years of intense drought. This most recent storm was big enough to inflict damage on coastal areas and bury the northern Sierra under deep blankets of snow.
Reservoirs need to be filled, and Valley farmers dependent on federal irrigation water deliveries need to know that they will get some much-needed relief after having to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland because of the drought.
But the Bureau of Reclamation, acting on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife determination of current Delta water temperatures, isn’t operating the pumps at the maximum set by the biological opinion that seeks to improve conditions for the threatened Delta smelt.
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An official with Westlands Water District told a Fresno Bee Editorial Board member Wednesday that pumping operators and fish agencies should recognize how dry the last three years were.
“This should be a time to maximize water supply deliveries for people, farms and cities, said Johnny Amaral, the district’s deputy general manager for external affairs. “We are in a huge water hole because of the drought.”
The tragedy is that this biological opinion – or management plan – for the Delta smelt is based largely on what fish experts believe to be true or is probably true, rather than proven science. The Delta smelt faces other challenges beyond getting caught in the pumps. These include non-native species, contaminants and the loss of tidal habitat in the Delta, scientists have said.
Understand: We don’t want to see the Delta smelt go extinct. It is an important indicator of the Delta’s health. But the Bureau of Reclamation must also consider the economic impact of its decisions on Valley farmers. In this specific case, its decision to pump less than is allowed under the biological opinion is a blow to our region’s agriculture-powered economy.
Last year, ironically, with the Department of Interior unable to meet its contract demands for water deliveries, it borrowed 200,000 acre-feet of water from Westlands. This was water that the district had bought and then stored in San Luis Reservoir. Under their agreement, the Department of Interior was supposed to return the water by Dec. 31, 2015.
The failure of federal agencies to maximize water deliveries right now – when water is readily available – is a sure-fire way to delay the promised repayment of water or even create a situation in which it is never paid back.
Even as bone-dry California is receiving precious rain and snow from the heavens above and water is pouring into the Delta, vast amounts of water are being allowed to roll out to the Pacific Ocean.
It makes no sense. Especially when long-range scientific modeling suggests that this season’s El Niño could transition into a La Niña and increase the threat of more drought for California.
The Bureau of Reclamation must do better. It needs to stop kicking farmers in the teeth.