John Laird: Here’s how to protect fish and deliver water to Central Valley farmers

If Gov. Jerry Brown’s Delta tunnels project, dubbed California WaterFix, becomes a reality, farmers and cities would be able to get more water from the kind of Sierra snowpack and heavy rains we’ve had this year.
If Gov. Jerry Brown’s Delta tunnels project, dubbed California WaterFix, becomes a reality, farmers and cities would be able to get more water from the kind of Sierra snowpack and heavy rains we’ve had this year. jwalker@fresnobee.com

California’s rivers are running higher now than they have in years, and Central Valley farmers are upset that water project pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is not rising in tandem with the rivers. Water managers work in real time to maximize water supply from the Delta. Rather than bicker about project operations, it’s time to fix the projects for the long term. That’s what Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing with California WaterFix.

We built our major water projects starting in the 1940s, and since then these projects have become the lifeblood for 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of irrigated agriculture.

Yet outdated infrastructure threatens the reliability of these state and federal water projects.

When the projects were first built, the federal and state governments installed big pumping plants a couple of miles apart in the south Delta, near Tracy.

The Delta pumping plants sit on dead-end channels that cannot be properly screened to protect fish. The pull of the pumps can extend miles into the south and central Delta. When operating, the pumps change the hydrodynamics and salinity gradient in the Delta. They create cross-Delta flows that can confuse migrating fish and draw them toward predator-rich channels.

The water projects are not the only stress upon Delta wildlife. Long before the projects were built, the Delta was drastically altered, with most of its wetlands destroyed and its waterways crowded by non-native species.

We are working to restore wetlands and control invasive species. We also need to curb the reverse flows created by the project pumps, not just for the sake of native fish but also water supply reliability.

In the winter and spring, storms and snowmelt fill rivers. These are the best times to store water from the Delta. But for salmon and smelt, these are bad times to create reverse flows in the south Delta. Thus, pumping has been restricted as fish populations decline.

That is the central conflict that we seek to ease with California WaterFix.

If the proposed project were built and in place this winter, we could have nearly half a million acre-feet more water stored in San Luis Reservoir than we do now. That reservoir, in Merced County, feeds the aqueducts that serve the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. It can hold 2 million acre-feet and now stands less than half full.

With California WaterFix in place, we could have captured an additional 486,000 acre-feet between Jan. 1 and the first week of March – and done so without violating water quality standards or the rules designed to protect Delta smelt and chinook salmon.

The three new intakes we propose building along the Sacramento River in the north Delta are outside the primary habitat of the Delta smelt. They could be effectively screened to protect smelt and juvenile salmon, and they would allow us to minimize reverse flows in the south Delta.

This new conveyance system would give us the flexibility to take big gulps of big storms and lay off the pumping in drier times, when pumping poses more risk to fish and water quality.

In all, on average, we think California WaterFix could add another couple hundred thousand acre-feet to the supplies of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. More importantly, it would prevent a serious erosion of deliveries from those projects.

If you take the same operational restrictions that federal fish agencies are discussing for California WaterFix and impose them on the existing system, without new intakes and tunnels, annual deliveries could drop on the order of 800,000 acre-feet. The history of the last 30 years shows that such restrictions are likely, especially if populations of native fish continue to decline.

I know the drought has stressed communities that rely on state and federal water. It is hard to wait for a long-term fix if the current threats challenge the economic viability of our cities and farms. But new intakes and tunnels are the long-term solution that can provide sustainability for cities, farms and habitat.

When Gov. Pat Brown initiated the State Water Project in the 1960s, a number of interests worried that the project wouldn’t pencil out. It has – and then some. It’s time to modernize the project for the next generation.