Bureau turns on two Delta pumps, relieving pressure on water supplies

Ron Milligan, operations manager for the Bureau of Reclamation’s California Central Valley Project doesn’t look like Santa — but he delivered a big Christmas package to Westlands Water District farmers when he announced yesterday the bureau has started two additional pumps to move water from the Sacramento Delta into the San Luis Reservoir.

“Huge, a God-send,” and “great news” were a few of the comments from more than 200 farmers who packed a steel building workshop at Westlands’ yard and offices near Five Points, Calif., to learn the impact of shutting down the giant pumps that move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from northern to southern and central California.

Many knew the news was bad before they arrived. Reports circulating through the district were that Westlands had only about a 25-day supply of water in San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos. The 2 million acre feet-capacity lake has been dropping at the rate of 2 feet per day from water draw-down by both state and federal water contractors.

The precipitous lake level tumble is being caused by normal, high water use by farmers as weather heated up in the valley and shutdowns of state and federal water project pumps occurred. The pumps were stopped to preclude juvenile Delta smelt — a minnow — from being sucked into them. Based on the fact the reclamation pumps have not entrained any smelt in the past two weeks, Milligan ordered the pumps started again to move water south and to mitigate a water shortage crisis not only in central valley agriculture, but in cities that rely on CVP water.

The state decided to leave its pumps off, although the California Water Project has the authority to turn them on again; it also has access to the same biological information as the Bureau of Reclamation about any threat to the smelt.

The pumps were shut down May 31 with the promise from the State Department of Water Resources that they would be off no longer than 10 days and that there would be no impact from the stoppage. It is now 14 days since the state pumps were stopped, and the state continues to draw water from San Luis without replenishing it. Only federal water is flowing into the reservoir, which is a joint use facility, holding both state and federal water.

The stoppage has caused chaos and panic among farmers, who quickly became fearful San Luis would eventually reach a critical low level, when all pumping from the lake would be stopped to preserve the integrity of the earthen dam that can hold up to 2 million acre feet of water.

Milligan said the bureau started its pumps again to stave off a major water crisis in the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, where crops already had been abandoned due to the pump shutdowns and the draw-down at San Luis.

Tom Birmingham, Westlands general manager, called the state’s no-impact proclamation “irresponsible,” saying it has caused chaos in not only the largest irrigation district in the U.S., but in every district supplied water by the CVP.

Fresno County, Calif., grower Mark Borba called the state’s claim of no harm “unbelievable — everyone knew it would have a huge impact the day it was announced.”

It has also been expensive for the bureau, which has spent $1 million per week over the past three weeks buying surplus San Joaquin River watershed water from growers and others to meet the needs of CVP customers in the northern end of the valley, according to Milligan.

The shutdown has not only precluded Westlands from buying surplus water from Northern California, it is placing in jeopardy about 56,000 acre feet bought from non-Westlands water owners south of the Delta. They are not sure when or if they will get the water they have agreed to sell.

Birmingham said Westlands opted not to spend money for the 50,000 acre feet it was offered north of the Delta because there is no assurance that the Delta pumps could deliver it time for the season.

Milligan told growers at the meeting, the largest Westlands growers could recall, that he expects both pumping stations to be back on line July 1, and that the Bureau will be able to deliver Westland’s 50 percent CVP federal water allotment this year.

However, considerable uncertainty remains and the Westlands board has asked its staff to prepare contingency plans in the event water is not delivered. This could result in a voluntary or involuntary use reduction plan.

Although it seems unlikely, the pumps could stop again based on a major flush of new juvenile smelt, or there could be a slough-off at the earthen San Luis dam.

All of this chaos has been caused by a minnow — more specifically, juvenile smelt, no longer than 1.2 inches. Delta smelt, although not indigenous to California, is listed as an endangered species, with populations declining each year.

According to Birmingham, only 1 percent of smelt losses can be attributed to the pumps; 80 percent are attributable to other, unidentified factors within the Delta.

He says the focus on smelt preservation is on the pumps, because they’re the one thing the bureaucrats, fish and game, and environmentalist can try to control.

The smelt is thought to have been introduced into the Delta from a cargo ship. At the tiny fingerling stage, they are considered susceptible to be taken in by the large pumps.

“When the smelt get to 40 millimeters (about 1.5 inches), they are considered strong enough swimmers to avoid the pump,” says Milligan.

However, the smelt issue becomes moot when the water temperature reaches 77 degrees in the Delta; water temperatures 77 and above are lethal to the tiny minnow.

It’s ironic that yesterday, when growers met to learn their water fate, weather forecasters were terming it the first day of a heat wave, with temperatures above 100 degrees expected in the valley for several days.

This is expected to drive water demand sky high. But that same heat could well be the trigger that takes the small minnow completely out of the picture in deciding whether to run the pumps or shut them down.

The heat will likely kill any juvenile minnows.

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