Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Letter seeking Delta-pumping bill support exposes sticky water politics

To Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, it was the easiest vote in the world.

He wanted his colleagues to approve sending a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asking her support a House resolution that seeks more Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water for the Valley’s west side.

But, as with so much else in politics, the request turned out to be anything but simple.

Phil Larson

Larson’s initial motion passed 3-0 — but Supervisors Andreas Borgeas and Debbie Poochigian abstained. They wanted the mull it over and, for Borgeas, to check with other members of the Valley’s congressional delegation before backing the letter.

The bill has been introduced by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. But Borgeas noted that in the past few years Tulare Republican Devin Nunes had also introduced legislation that would increase delta pumping — including one last year that passed the House but died in the Senate.

Larson was frustrated. How could politics seep into a request so simple?

The board, he felt, should support all efforts — be they Republican or Democrat — to bring more water to the Valley’s west side.

Still, he agreed to the delay — just a few hours until the afternoon.

At issue is Costa’s H.R. 1927, which would tweak existing management plans — known as biological opinions — covering threatening Delta smelt and endangered salmon to allow more pumping.

Andreas Borgeas

Johnny Amaral, Nunes’ chief-of-staff, says Nunes’ 2009 effort was almost identical to Costa’s, but Costa’s people say the current effort is more nuanced in that it wouldn’t eliminate the biological opinions.

Nunes’ 2009 effort would have suspended the biological opinions and set pumping levels at 100% of the contracted amounts annually. Democrats controlled the House at the time. The effort went nowhere.

But Nunes had better luck last year, with the Republicans in control. He succeeded in passing an ambitious, pro-agriculture water bill that would have significantly increased water deliveries to the Valley’s west side.

Both Feinstein and fellow California Sen. Barbara Boxer, however, were opposed to the legislation It died in the Senate.

“The fact of the matter is if Democrats in the House and Senate actually cared about a reliable water supply, they would have supported language to allow the pumps to run when the it was offered in 2009,” Amaral said.

Rep. Devin Nunes

“It’s all just a big game to them, playing to their radical environmentalist pals. To quote Yogi Berra, its ‘deja vu all over again.’ Except now, communities and families are being devastated for no good reason. It’s time for the Senate to follow the leadership displayed in the House and do something useful — for once.”

For starters, he said the Senate should pass its own legislation so both sides can have a starting position for negotiations. Costa’s bill messes that up, he said, because it changes the House’s already established position.

“It’s like we’re negotiating with ourselves right now,” he said.

Costa has a different outlook. His strategy is for the House to pass something that has a chance to get through the Senate. He believes his current bill does that.

Which brings it all back around to the Fresno County Supervisors.

Rep. Jim Costa

They reconvened Tuesday afternoon and debated just what the letter to Feinstein should say.

Borgeas’ suggestion was that it say the board supports not only Costa’s current bill, but recognize other efforts, too, including ones “approved by the House but that have not yet been approved by the Senate.”

It is important, Borgeas said, to give recognition to Nunes’ efforts.

Supervisor Henry R. Perea then chimed in, saying that language went too far and “starts making it partisan.”

So the specific reference to being “approved by the House” but “not yet approved by the Senate” was eliminated, and the final wording only referenced current and past efforts to increase westside water deliveries.

The letter was finally approved — 5-0.

Why study expansion of a nearly empty reservoir?

A federal leader last week mentioned a study to raise San Luis Dam and expand the nearly empty San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County, raising eyebrows all around. Why study expansion of a reservoir holding 16% of its capacity? And why now?

First, a little context. San Luis Reservoir is an important hub in California’s waterworks — supplying both west San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California cities. The reservoir has no natural stream to fill it, so water is pumped there from the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

San Luis Reservoir at 16% this month.

When pumping was restricted this year to protect dying fish species and water quality, California lost the opportunity to send a lot of water into the reservoir. The lost pumping and the drought have turned the reservoir into an August mud puddle.

So why look at expanding San Luis Reservoir now?

Half of the answer: It’s part of the ongoing efforts under the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, a 1992 environmental reform law that includes a section to improve water supply.

The other half: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is going through a dam safety study. The planning division is appraising a project to both reduce earthquake risks and improve deliveries to the federal Central Valley Project.

At the same time apparently, water customers began asking about expanding the capacity of the reservoir.

By sometime next year, the appraisal study will let federal leaders know if they should do a full-blown feasibility study.

This is all part of a bigger fight, pitting Northern California against Southern California over water. It’s a story that has played out over decades. Another chapter is about to be finished as the state prepares the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, touted as a way to fix this marathon problem. It’s a nerve-racking process.

The short-term solution makes everyone even more nervous: Hoping for a wet winter. This problem could get much worse if California gets a third year of drought.

Bay Delta Conservation Plan more than tunnels, state leader says

I listened to the state’s top water leader talk for an hour Thursday about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Then I tried to check some of his data online.

The download of so many documents crashed my computer. Let’s just go straight to the talk at The Fresno Bee editorial board meeting, which did not break any news.

Mark Cowin, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said the controversial plan is more than tunnels and arguments. Nonetheless, he had to spend time explaining the two huge water tunnels being proposed at the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The tunnel idea is to move Sacramento River water south in tunnels so the water doesn’t pass through the delta. The idea is the epic issue for California natural resources these days, easily on a par with the Peripheral Canal fight I covered 30 years ago.

Some Northern Californians have told me it’s simply a water grab for Central Valley farmers and Southern California. The delta’s ecosystem and Northern California will suffer, they say.

Some farmers and Southern Californians argue it would give the state a more certain water supply. Plus, the delta would get the chance to heal, they say.

Cowin said he supports the $25 billion tunnels, but the plan is equally about restoring the faltering delta.

He and Karla Nemeth, outreach and communications manager, said saving the delta’s dying fish species and declining habitat is a linchpin of the plan. They mentioned such projects as rebuilding flood plains and fattening up migrating salmon.

We asked tunnel questions, such as: How much difference would the tunnels have made for west Valley farmers who lost water this year in environmental cutbacks for the threatened delta smelt?

Cowin and Nemeth said the tunnels probably would have resulted in about 700,000 acre-feet of additional water.

The draft of this plan should be available in the next few months, they said. I’m not sure that will give you enough time to read the 27,000 pages of documents related to it.

Smelt numbers change slightly

After I wrote the Sunday story about the water pumps at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, federal leaders tweaked their analysis of the delta smelt problem this winter.

The picture is still not good for this protected species, but it’s not quite as bad as it looked in early February. It might help keep the pumps running to provide water for farm and city customers later this year.

The federal analysis released last week says smelt deaths at the pumps  are actually only 64% of the total allowed for the year, not 76% as had been reported.

Two numbers had been adjusted since I first reported on the smelt. The number of fish allowed to die at the pumps was increased from 305 to 362. And the number of fish reported to have died at the pumps is now 230, not 232.

Delta smelt will be in Fresno court this week

A three-inch minnow again will be briefly in a spotlight this week in Fresno. A U.S. District judge is considering a three-year delay on rewriting the plan to protect the threatened delta smelt.

Here in federal court, the fish has been at the center of a years-long legal argument pitting the protection plan against water pumping for cities and farms.

Federal authorities are seeking the delay so they can focus on a broader effort that will protect the place where the smelt live.

I’ve been following the smelt issue since 1991 when federal wildlife authorities proposed it as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. I’ll give you a short explanation of why you should care about the smelt case.

The fish lives only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California. The delta is where water pumping supplies millions of Californians with drinking water and 3 million acres of farmland with irrigation water.

When the smelt strays near the big pumps, it’s time to shut down pumping, which slows down the effort to fill San Luis Reservoir. The reservoir holds irrigation water for west San Joaquin Valley farming.

The pumps were shut down for a few weeks in December to protect the smelt. Farm water leaders here fear it will result in reduced irrigation deliveries this summer. That’s why you should care.

It’s just one corner of a story that has traveled through courts, fiery debates, scientific studies and grand political ideas to solve this clash. The process continues, and it’s a subject for another day.

The bigger point remains over the decades. California’s big rivers and fresh water are in the north. People are in the south. And a huge swath of lucrative farming is right in the middle.

It’s a statewide issue, and it affects the Valley’s biggest industry.