For all the water that Californians saved last year through conservation measures – mandated and otherwise – the agencies in charge of the state’s water have wasted nearly an equal amount in the past three months by not capturing and storing it for later use.
Earlier this year the California Department of Water Resources praised Californians for conserving about one million acre feet of water after Gov. Edmund Brown ordered residents to cut their water use by 25 percent.
In spite of that action by state resident, federal water managers have allowed about 80 percent of that volume to flow out to sea instead of making efforts to capture storm runoff that could be used later by farms and residents if drought conditions persist.
As a result, Sen. Dianne Feinstein is calling on the Bureau of Reclamation to increase Delta pumping in California within the bounds of the court-ordered biological opinions to capture and store more storm runoff from the latest round of storms.
Numbers given to Feinstein’s office from the water agencies tell a daunting story. In spite of more than double the volume of Delta outflows from Jan. 1 through March 6 of this year when compared to the same period last year, Delta exports are down 3 percent from what they were last year.
“This simply defies logic,” says Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager of external affairs with central California’s Westlands Water District.
As of March 6 Delta outflows topped almost three million acre feet. Of that, about 627,000 acre feet, or 22 percent, were captured and moved into storage for later use.
“Pumping less water even though river flows more than doubled means 180,000 to 200,000 acre feet of water was allowed to flow out to the sea instead of being captured and stored,” Feinstein said in a prepared statement.
This is enough water to supply 360,000 homes for a year.
“It’s inexcusable that pumping levels have been reduced without sufficient evidence of fish mortality, even while biological opinions would allow more pumping,” Feinstein continued.
California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade agrees with Feinstein that the agency action to let billions of gallons of water flow unfettered to the ocean in the midst of an epic drought makes no sense.
“Letting over two billion gallons of fresh water per day go out to the ocean to become salt water defies logic, especially during the current storm flows,” Wade said.
Western Growers Association President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Nassif said he was pleased with Feinstein’s call to boost Delta pumping during the high storm flows.
“Her statement will help raise awareness of the fact that hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water are being needlessly lost to the ocean,” Nassif said. “(This is) water that could instead be captured and stored for beneficial use south of the Delta.”
Feinstein criticizes USBR
Feinstein criticized the agencies responsible for pumping decisions, saying they curtailed pumping in the name of fish protection while data suggested no smelt or salmon were anywhere near the pumps used to convey water into San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos.
In short, Feinstein found that the Bureau of Reclamation “squandered” opportunities to pump water into storage in spite of evidence to suggest no environmental harm would be done if pumping were increased.
“This is clear evidence of the need for legislation to allow more water to be pumped during periods of high river flows while still adhering to environmental laws and biological opinions,” Feinstein said.
Even so, multiple years of drought and several sessions of Congress have not produced federal law to correct this imbalance, in spite of calls to the contrary by elected officials from both sides of the political aisle.
Amaral called federal agency decisions to curtail pumping “a deliberate act to choke this area off of water.”
The ripple effect of these decisions will be seen in the cities, Amaral argues. These decisions are not merely preventing farmers from seeing any of this water; cities like Los Angeles and San Diego will also be impacted.
“This is a completely indefensible policy,” he said.
Earlier in March the Bureau of Reclamation made two flood control releases from Folsom Reservoir after the lake reached its flood control threshold for the date. This happened mere months after the City of Sacramento was installing pumps to capture the remaining few acre feet of water in the reservoir after it fell below “dead pool,” the level at which installed pumps are no longer capable of capturing water for urban residents.
Since then rain and snow has filled Folsom Reservoir to 72 percent of capacity as more rain and snow was on the way. In early December the reservoir was at 13 percent of capacity.
Feinstein is calling on action to put “real-world” decision making back in the process of pumping water from the Delta by “basing pumping decisions on better science and real-time monitoring” of water conditions upstream.
Current biological opinions allow for only 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to be pumped from the Delta, far from the 15,500 cfs capacity the two Delta pumping stations have.
As a result, instead of being able to pump upwards of 30,000 acre feet of water per day and put it into storage for residents and farms to use, officials continue to allow five times the physical capacity of the pumps to flow out to sea and not be captured for use by Californians.
Amaral’s message continues to call for responsibility and reason.
“Here we are in 2016 with the rain and snow that we’ve already had, and what is the federal government doing? Instead of considering how dry the past three years have been and not acting responsibly by pumping more water, they’re letting it flow out to sea,” he said.
“The truth is they’ve missed out on almost 700,000 acre feet of storage they could have captured this year.”
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