California Board Rejects Additional Delta Water Withdrawal

Published June 1, 2015

The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWCB) rejected on February 3 part of a request to allow additional pumping of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Southern California.

Dozens of farmers, agriculture workers, and concerned citizens filled a February 18 SWCB hearing to voice their frustration with the board’s decision.

SWCB Executive Director Tom Howard says he has approved most of the petitions the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have sent requesting more water. He says he approved 100 acre-feet of water withdrawals for every acre-foot of water he denied.

“So, at a ratio of 100-to-1, you’d think the story would be that we’re showing incredible flexibility with … environmental protections in order to ensure reasonable water supply protection for the people in … California,” Howard said. “And yet, somehow the story seems to be that there’s been some sort of lack of concern about water supply for the people in … California.” 

Beset On All Sides

Emotions ran hot when news surfaced a letter from the environmental activist group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) purportedly swayed SWCB’s decision against even greater water withdrawals. NRDC’s letter to SWCB called the temporary petition “biologically unjustified,” claiming pumping additional water would create a “potential additional risk” to an endangered fish.

Some environmentalists oppose additional water withdrawals because of their concern for a tiny silver fish, the delta smelt, which lives only in the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. California’s four-year-long drought threatens the smelt’s survival.

Howard says he had already cancelled the historic estuarine standards in the spring period to allow more water withdrawal for human use, despite concerns over the smelt’s survival.  

Fighting Salinity

“Right now, the projects are operating for what we call salinity control in the delta,” Howard said. “They’re making enough water available in the delta to maintain salinity for the purpose of irrigated agriculture in the delta, and for the purpose of keeping the pumping facilities, which take water to [S]outhern California, sufficiently fresh so the water can actually be exported.

“Providing enough water for salinity control has some benefit to fish, but the amount of water maintained for salinity control is very low compared to what normally would be required for the fish,” Howard said.

Howard says SWCB must ensure enough fresh water flows out of the delta to push back against tides bringing saltwater upstream. This creates a barrier that enables the pumping of fresh water instead of salt water.

“Right now the delta is mostly irrigated agriculture, so the farms there would lose their crops, and the export facilities, which take water into [S]outhern California and into San Joaquin Valley agriculture areas, would become too salty for them to take [additional] water there,” said Howard. “Of course, we’re making sure that doesn’t happen.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.