Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

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.

 

Perea wants to streamline water funding for small towns

After years of delays and confusion over state funding to fix dirty drinking water, a lawmaker says it’s time to make this easier for rural San Joaquin Valley towns.

Assemblymember Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, introduced Assembly Bill 145 Friday, aimed at having the State Water Resources Control Board take over. It’s a streamlining move, Perea says. The state water board already is a water policing agency.

The state water board would replace the California Department of Public Health, a $3 billion bureaucracy tasked with 150 different functions handling everything from hospital licensing to regulating the movement of radioactive material.

The state public health agency was the biggest roadblock to getting funds, according to town leaders and many others involved in the process.

The Fresno Bee’s 2011 stories detailed several cities that have been trying for years to get funding from the public health department for drinking water cleanup. In such towns as Seville in Tulare County, drinking bottled water is a way of life.

Nitrates from fertilizers, animal waste and septic systems are the most common problems in the water.

“Some towns have been able to get funding, but some have been lost in the bureaucratic stream,” said Perea, who has expressed frustration about the public health department’s efforts.

West-side Valley farm water already lagging

Farm water analysts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are less than optimistic about the water supply for next summer despite a good snowpack so far this year.

West  siders suspect a key Valley reservoir won’t fill up this year, due to water pumping restrictions that protect dying fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

It’s a familiar refrain. For years, west siders have been making the point about fish protections reducing irrigation deliveries. This year, the farm-water analysts are projecting 40% to 55% of contractual allotments even if the Sierra gets all the snow it usually gets.

The projection comes from the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, representing west Valley farmers on the federal Central Valley Project. Among those farmers are Westlands Water District growers.

Here’s how the water delivery works: Water flows from Northern California rivers through the delta to the huge pumps near Tracy in the south delta. The water is pumped south — which is uphill, by the way — to San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County.

To fill San Luis, a steady flow of pumped water continues through the winter. When the water is interrupted, it’s tough to catch up with the loss of pumping.

Salmon and delta smelts sometimes are nearby, so pumping must be slowed or stopped to prevent them from being dragged into the pumps and killed.

Analysts say the restricted pumping in December equates to about a 10% reduction in available farm water supply. The situation may not get any better this month or next month if the fish are still exposed to the danger.

And if the winter suddenly turns dry — as it sometimes does in California — the projection of available water would drop to somewhere between 35% and 40%, according to the authority.

Track California reservoirs, rivers and snowpack data

If you’re interested in tracking reservoir storage, river flows and the snow-water content in the Sierra, the state has a web site for you — California Data Exchange Center, known as CDEC.

I am particularly interested in the amount of water frozen in the snow. Water content gives you an idea of how much water can be expected next spring and summer when the snowpack melts.

About this time of year, I like to compare the snowpack at this point to the snowpack last year. You can do that at this page.

As of Nov. 21, the Sierra is about the same as it was last year.  It is less than average, but most of the season is still ahead.

River flows become more important later in the wet season, but any time is a good time to look up reservoir levels. Reservoirs are the bank account of water from previous seasons. They’re still looking pretty good, even though last year was a little dry.

Follow CDEC, and you’ll have an idea of what farmers, hydroelectric projects and many industries are watching this winter in California.

Lawmakers want to fix bureaucratic funding maze for clean water

Small, impoverished towns are sometimes left for years with tainted drinking water while they wade through a cryptic state process for public funding to fix the problem.

Two frustrated lawmakers this week will start a streamlining effort that probably will result in several new bills next year.  The lawmakers are Assemlymembers Henry T. Perea, D- Fresno, and Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville.

“We’re getting pretty fed up,” said Perea, who has worked for funding in such Tulare County towns as Seville, Monson, Cutler and Orosi. “We might want to consolidate this process under different agencies.”

At 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Sacramento, Alejo and Perea will convene an oversight hearing of the Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials Committee to take testimony from more than a dozen people. If you want to follow it live, go here.

Thomas Harter, a University of California at Davis researcher, will briefly discuss his landmark research released this year on nitrates, the most widely found contaminant. It comes from fertilizer, animal waste, septic systems, sewage treatment plants and decaying vegetation.

The contaminant threatens the drinking water for more than a quarter of a million people in the Valley, according to Harter’s research.

Yet in places like Seville, which was featured last year in a Fresno Bee series of stories on drinking water problems in rural towns, it has taken years just to secure funding to study a fix.

This week, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors was expected to approve a $690,000 grant to study the best ways to fix Seville’s problem. The study money has been years in the making and there have been bureaucratic snags along the way, as The Bee reported last year.

Even with the study money in hand, it probably will take more than a year to get started on a fix for the town’s crumbling water system.