A new set of water regulations aimed at protecting California’s native fish came down from the state earlier this week to near universal condemnation from both agricultural and environmental water folks.
The regulations are contained in a 143-page “incidental take permit” issued by the Department of Fish and Wildlife that lays out when — and how much — water can be pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by the State Water Project.
Agricultural contractors who get water from the project fear they could lose up to 300,000 acre feet a year under the new permit.
Environmentalists say the permit gives a “free pass” to pumpers and is a path to extinction for native fish.
For Central Valley water users, the new regulations come as they’re already struggling to reconcile excessive groundwater pumping with dwindling surface supplies.
“Our concern is, if (state and federal water users) are, collectively not meeting delta requirements under this permit, the State Water Contractors will have to make up for the federal side, making our deliveries worse,” said Jason Gianquinto, General Manager of the Semitropic Water Storage District in northwestern Kern County.
Semitropic, alone, has a 165,000 acre-foot groundwater overdraft that it’s trying to fill.
Karla Nemeth, Director of the Department of Water Resources which runs the State Water Project, sympathized with the challenges faced by ag water users, but felt concerns about the new permit are overblown.
“What’s happening with some State Water Contractors (being upset) is they are looking at the federal biological opinions that would have enabled them to export more water,” Nemeth said. “This permit doesn’t allow for that water to be exported. It reallocates it to environmental uses.”
She referred to biological opinions released by the Trump administration last fall and enacted after a campaign-style rally by President Trump himself in Bakersfield on February 19.
Those biological opinions relaxed some guidelines for how much water could be pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
In past years, the biological opinions have acted as the main governing documents for how the state and federal Bureau of Reclamation jointly operate the delta.
The state sued over the biological opinions and, for the first time, issued its own permit for delta operations.
Now there are two delta operation manuals, so to speak.
Brent Walthal, Assistant General Manager for the Kern County Water Agency, wasn’t surprised by the new permit, which has been in the works since last May. The Kern County Water Agency administers state water contracts that account for about a million acre feet on behalf of 13 agricultural water districts and is the second largest contractor on the State Water Project.
He anticipated the new permit would reinstate guidelines from the 2008 federal biological opinions, which, in some cases it does.
That includes reestablishing flow requirements on the San Joaquin River, which he said could reduce exports to State Water Contractors by up to 150,000 acre feet a year.
Add to that two new environmental water set asides of close to 130,000 acre feet a year and the total potential reduction could be 300,000 acre feet a year, he said.
“Modelers are still poring over this to try and understand exactly what it will mean to us,” Walthal said.
Nemeth described the permit as “export neutral,” when looking at it through the 2008 biological opinions.
She and Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham both pointed to the permit’s advantages to water contractors, especially in wet years.
Such as, a cap on environmental outflows and moving the Fall X2 line closer to the delta.
The Fall X2 line is where salty water from the San Francisco Bay meets fresh water from the delta. That line had been required to be held at 70 kilometers away from the Golden Gate Bridge, which required heavier flows coming out of the delta.
The permit now allows it to be 80 kilometers from the bridge, Bonham said.
“That’s huge,” he said. “That alone, in wet years, will result in higher exports.”
He joked that he would love to see a letter to the editor in The Bakersfield Californian thanking the state for finally moving the Fall X2 line, something water contractors have lobbied for for years.
Those and other parts of the permit were roundly criticized by multiple environmental groups, according to a March 31 blog post by Doug Obegi, a lead attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“While the State’s permits are not identical to the Trump Administration’s plan for extinction, they share many of the same problematic elements,” he writes.
He predicts multiple groups will sue over the permit.
Indeed, the Metropolitan Water District, the State Water Project’s largest contractor, already has an agenda item on its April 14 meeting to discuss moving ahead with a lawsuit over the permit.
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Several observers speculated about the effect the new state permit would have on another ongoing water drama known as the “voluntary agreements.”
Some felt the permit was a political gambit to “gain leverage” in that process.
Others felt issuing the permit would cut the legs out from those discussions.
In 2018, the State Water Resources Control board required increases flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from tributaries to the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers to help native fish populations.
The edict requires 40 percent of those waterways’ unimpaired flows (meaning the amount of water that would flow down the channels if there hadn’t been dams and other diversions built).
That’s a significant water bite to the towns and farms that had been using the water.
In recognition of that, the Water Board, allowed time for the water users to develop voluntary agreements to find other ways to improve fish populations.
DWR Director Karla Nemeth and DFW Director Chuck Bonham both denied the new state permit would quash the voluntary agreements talks.
In fact, they noted that the permit holds out space to include actions under those agreements.
“If (the agreements) include commitments that are consistent with the requirements of the permit, the permit can be held in abeyance,” Bonham said. “The permit won’t run over those voluntary agreements.”
Brent Walthal, Assistant General Manager for the Kern County Water Agency, disagreed that the new state permit wouldn’t interfere with the voluntary agreements.
“It creates greater uncertainty,” he said.
The permit, on top of the state’s lawsuit over new federal biological opinions, makes the water portion of the equation too iffy for water users.
The federal biological opinions, issued last fall by the Trump administration are governing documents for the delta letting water users know, generally, how much they can pump water and when.
“All those federal water districts, especially on the Sacramento river, that had been offering certain amounts of water in the voluntary agreements were using the biological opinions as their base to calculate their overall water. The state’s lawsuit takes away that foundation,” Walthal said. “This permit makes that process even messier.”