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Workers losing out to smelt

South of the Delta water-users may be keeping their fingers crossed that over 600,000 acre-feet of water prevented from flowing to them will be the sum total of the price they pay this year to protect an endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta but they’re not holding their breath. Instead, farmers are making contingency plans to cut back on crop acreage that will also cost farm workers their jobs.

A federal judge ruled last year that restrictions would be placed on pumping water from the Delta if such actions threatened the Delta smelt. The two to three-inch long smelt has a lifespan of usually only one year. It is so small that it does not swim through the Delta waters on its own power but rather floats from one area to the next. This floating regime has placed it in locations that direct water to the State and federal pumping plants.

The judge’s ruling has already slowed the pumping of water since December of last year. Users of water from the State Water Project report more than 450,000 acre-feet of water has been lost. On the federal side that amount is 150,000 acre-feet. But current conditions in the Delta fail to provide any assurance that more water will not be halted in its flow to contracted water users.

This water was lost in response to water turbidity levels and directional flows at Old and Middle rivers in the Delta. Will this response be enough to stem the loss of smelt and put water deliveries from the Delta back on track? Probably not.

The smelt will soon be entering a phase in its life-cycle that has historically placed it in danger of floating into the pumps in increased numbers because of the flow pattern of water through the Delta. While farmers are keeping their fingers crossed in hopes of no additional flow restrictions, they are also being realistic and preparing for future interruptions in water deliveries.

Farmers have already put pencil to paper to determine which crops to plant this season and when to put the seed in the ground. For those who have both row crops that are planted each year and also trees or vine crops, the decision must be made whether to redirect available water from the row crops to the permanent crops. Some farmers are drilling new wells in hopes of tapping the groundwater source if necessary. But there is more at stake than just how many acres to plant and spending money for a new well. There is a human factor in these decisions.

Farmers have been forced to tell some of their workers that there will be no jobs for them this year. These jobs may be seasonal and related to harvest activity while others are year-round positions. Farmers responded to a survey about employee reductions and the numbers are startling---between 546 and 1,150 employees have already lost their jobs because of the uncertain water future. But only a portion of the farmers who receive water from the Delta were part of this survey. These numbers could easily double.

Let us not lose sight of this human story when we read news reports of water not being delivered to San Joaquin Valley farms and the millions of people who rely upon this flow for drinking purposes.

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