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State water contractors should “drill into” California’s response to new delta biological opinions

 •  by Lois Henry
Ernest Conant, director of the California Basin Region of the Bureau of Reclamation, speaks at the Water Association of Kern County annual meeting Nov. 12, 2019.

A top federal water official warned members of a Central Valley water group that the state’s response to new guidelines for federally endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would likely include alternatives “inconsistent with your interests.”

Ernest Conant, director of the California Great Basin Region of the Bureau of Reclamation (until recently known as the Mid-Pacific Region), spoke at the Water Association of Kern County annual meeting Tuesday night.

“I would encourage you all to really drill into,” the anticipated environmental impact report by the state Department of Water Resources, which could be out as early as this Friday, he said. “I’m sure there’ll be some alternatives in it that will be inconsistent with the federal opinion and inconsistent with your best interests. I encourage everybody to scrutinize that closely.”

He referred to biological opinions issued last month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries services. The “biops,” as they’re known, govern water movement and exports through the delta based on the life cycles and locations of endangered delta smelt and salmon.

The biops were highly controversial for proposing changes to existing delta practices, which some groups see as rolling back species protections. Lawsuits have already been threatened.

As director of the California Basin Region, Conant has been intimately involved in the biops, which are part of a larger reconsultation on long term operations of the delta between the feds and the state. The Department of Water Resources operates the State Water Project, which moves water from the delta to the Central Valley and southern California via the California Aqueduct on the west side of the valley. The federal Bureau of Reclamation operates the Central Valley Project, which has several pieces, but brings water from the delta down the east side of the valley via the Friant-Kern Canal.

The two systems must operate in concert per state water rights laws. The operations are also bound by the federal Endangered Species Act to protect fish. However, the state Endangered Species Act doesn’t control federal actions.

So, under the new biops, if federal contractors extract more water out of the, the state could still insist that its contractors make up that loss out of their cut of water, which happened in 2018.

What the state will do is still up in the air.

Conant said Wednesday that the CVP and SWP worked closely on the reconsultation and biops process.

“Our objectives were to optimize water deliveries and power production, to increase operational flexibility, to protect species and habitat and implement projects that contribute to the delta’s recovery,” Conant said.

He noted seven measured under the reconsultation process that had the potential to increase water deliveries:

  1.  An overall change in philosophy that bases operations on data versus the calendar. “The way it works now, you can release no more than this much water in these months. Period. We’re moving to performance metrics so the Bureau and DWR have to meet based on the presence and needs of the endangered species.”
  2. Better cold water management at Shasta each May for spawning and juvenile salmon.
  3. Replace the import/export ratio with real time monitoring. Currently, rules prohibit pumping more than 1/4 of the San Joaquin River flow in April and May at certain points, regardless of what’s happening with the fish. “That could make a big difference in a wet year, like this one.”
  4. Modiy the summer/fall flow actions for “X2 standards.” That designation refers to salinity levels. Currently, rules require enough fresh water pushing through the delta to keep higher saline water at 74 kilometers in from the Golden Gate. The new biops moved that line to 84 kilometers.
  5. Remove a requirement to put up a fish barrier in a section of the delta known as “head of Old River,” something that costs $2 million at each installation and scientists have said does little for fish, but can cost water deliveries.
  6. Extend the water transfer window by two months, July to November, which helps with water movement in dry years. This has been in place since passage of the Water Infrastructure Improvement (WIIN) Act in 2016.
  7. Allow increased pumping during storms. Another WIIN Act measure.

Conant said the biops aren’t a done deal. The Bureau and DWR still have to issue environmental impact statements on them and DWR has to seek a permit through California Fish and Wildlife under the California Endangered Species Act.

Lois Henry Lois Henry
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