As described in The Modesto Bee’s April 25 story “Lawsuit claims Delta fish harmed by relaxed water standards,” the Natural Resources Defense Council, Bay Institute and Wildlife Defenders are shopping for a federal court decision that would strip California of having the final say about its water resources.
The groups have a long history of talking out of both sides of their mouths.
As lead plaintiff in 2006, the NRDC famously reneged on the San Joaquin River settlement. It first agreed not to seek modification of the settlement’s terms, then was caught simultaneously suing to overturn it.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River north of Fresno. The bureau says three-quarters of the 4.5 million acre-feet of water flowing down the San Joaquin River passes through its dams and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Most flows come in late winter or spring, fed by rain and melting snowpack. While a majority of the water flows out to sea, some is diverted to other uses. That is the subject of the legal challenge.
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The plaintiffs make regular appearances before the State Water Resources Control Board to argue for endangered species and water quality. They say it’s necessary to allow these winter waters to flow down the river instead of capturing them in reservoirs for human use. The water board has responded favorably.
These groups also wring their hands over the small remainder the dams capture – about 508,000 acre-feet in Millerton Reservoir – saying most should be released when natural flows falter during drier months to help salmon and steelhead smolt swim toward the Delta and sea, and to aid Delta habitat.
The heart of their contention, therefore, is a desire to dip from the same source twice – once during winter and again in spring.
A third option exists, but they are steadfastly against it. That alternative is to build a new Temperance Flat Dam above Millerton Lake. The new dam would capture more winter flows, increasing potential water storage to 1.7 million acre-feet in all. The conservationists say the upper San Joaquin River is a wild and scenic paradise that Temperance Flat would ruin, and the winter flows are needed for the Delta … or for fish-saving releases later in the year, take your pick.
If maintaining normal Delta water flows and protecting endangered fish is the goal, a new San Joaquin River surface-storage facility at Temperance Flat that captures, stores and releases water from winter to summer is the most practical answer.
It would have the side benefits of improving the Delta’s plumbing, providing more flexibility in the water system and allowing more water to flow to Southern California by reducing the reason endangered fish congregate around the Delta pumps.
The court should ask NRDC and the other groups to explain all of these contradictions and past bad-faith actions before deciding whether to take the lawsuit seriously.
Aubrey Bettencourt is the executive director of the California Water Alliance, a Hanford-based statewide nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about the nature of water and promoting long-term, sustainable water solutions. For more information, visit www.CaliforniaWaterAlliance.org.