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California water needs highlighted by Delta pump decision

Four days after an Alameda County, Calif., judge ordered the shut-down of pumps that send drinking water to 25 million Californians and irrigate 775,000 acres of farmland, Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger was in Fresno once again, drumming up support to build a new dam on the San Joaquin River.

Judge Frank Roesch gave the state 60 days to figure a way to comply with a law to protect endangered and threatened fish species or shut down the pumps that transport water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley River Delta.

No one expects the ruling to cut off water to Central and Southern California, but it was a wake-up call to the precarious state of the water supply for 37 million Californians and millions of acres of farmland.

It has been decades since any new water supplies have been developed in the state, and Gov. Schwarzenegger says it’s time to develop new water supplies.

With the Friant Dam and Millerton Lake Reservoir as a backdrop, he detailed once again the “desperate need to have more above-the-ground water storage.

“This is an issue that I promised the people of California, it’s an issue that I have promised the people in the Valley,” he said.

In the next 20 years, California’s population is expected to grow by 30 percent.

Notwithstanding that growth, the governor, flanked by a host of politicians from throughout the Valley, said earthquakes and major storms also make the existing water supply “very vulnerable” by damaging the Delta and threatening the water supply for 25 million Californians.

“Two-thirds of all Californians are threatened to have their water supply cut off it we have a major earthquake or a huge, major storm,” said Schwarzenegger.

He also talked about global warming reducing the annual snow pack and rising sea levels contaminating the Delta with saltwater.

He has proposed $5.95 billion in bonds for water management and $4.5 billion dollars for water storage. Likely dam sites are the west side of the Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River east of Fresno, which would supply 500,000 acre feet of water.

Back to the court case, Roesch's ruling was in response to a 2006 lawsuit over killing of the fish. The suit was filed by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance against the California Resources Agency, which oversees the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Project.

The judge’s ruling was a “bell-ringer," said Bill Jennings, the executive director of the Alliance, a confederation of anglers based in Stockton. "We have a real likelihood now that the delta will receive more water.”

Ultimately, the state’s Department of Water Resources could be forced to radically change the way it allocates water via the State Water Project. Changes could mean more water for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and less for municipalities and Central Valley farms.

Consequences of changing State Water Project operations are massive: State officials say it is directly responsible for a $300 billion portion of the California economy.

At a minimum, complying with the judge's decision will force the state water agency to obtain a permit from the California Department of Fish and Game, allowing the "incidental" killing of delta smelt and chinook salmon at the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant near Tracy, as well developing a plan to aid in the recovery of the protected fish.

Jennings said the Water Resources Department ignored the California Endangered Species Act and state fish and game codes in operating its pumps, which have chewed up large numbers of fish.

The state's pumping station can transport 10,300 cubic feet of water a second, while nearby pumps that sustain the federal Central Valley Project are much smaller, with a capacity of about 4,600 cfs. The Central Valley Project is not affected by Roesch's decision.

The Water Resources Department maintained it was given a pass on state laws by virtue of five agreements concluded in the 1990s, including two negotiated by CalFed, the joint state and federal agency created to solve California's water disputes.

Roesch ruled that the agreements did not constitute a permit to kill the salmon and smelt, as the state contended.

The best that can be said of the five agreements, Roesch wrote, "is that (they) accept fish will be killed in the Henry O. Banks Pumping Plant operations and that the parties agree that mitigation measures will be undertaken."

State officials expressed dismay at the decision.

"We obviously strongly disagree with the court's proposed decision and will present additional information to challenge (it)," state Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman said.

Ryan Broddrick, the director of the California Department of Fish and Game, said conservation strategies of the kind Roesch requires are complicated and time-consuming.

Sacramento River


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