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Delta pumps halted

If shutdown is long, agencies may order conservation or rationing.

By Matt Weiser - Sacramento Bee, June 1, 2007

Vital links in the state's water system run side by side near Patterson in Stanislaus County: in the foreground the California Aqueduct and beyond it the Delta's Mendota Canal. Water into the aqueduct will be cut off for seven to 10 days. Sacramento Bee file, 2002/Dick Schmidt

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California water officials on Thursday halted water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta after rising numbers of a rare fish, the Delta smelt, were sucked to their deaths in the pumps.

State Department of Water Resources officials said the action is expected to last seven to 10 days, until water conditions allow the fish to move to safer areas. Shortages are not expected for the 25 million Californians who get water from the Delta.

But if the shutdown lasts longer, some water agencies, mainly in the Bay Area, may have to impose mandatory conservation or rationing measures. Many have called on customers to adopt extra voluntary conservation steps amid what is already one of the driest years on record in the state.

"Nobody is going without water," said DWR Director Lester Snow. "We will ramp up efforts for additional conservation. We want everybody to conserve water both because of this circumstance and the low snowpack this year."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also has shut down all but one of the six pumps at its separate, federal Delta water export facility, an unprecedented step.

"We have never been in the situation we are right now," said bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken.

Bureau engineers are working to further cut the flow while still sending enough water downstream to keep Tracy from running dry. The city takes about half its supply from the bureau's San Luis Canal.

This may be the first time state water exports have been halted to protect fish. The pumps were last silenced in 2004, and only for a couple of days, to protect water quality after a levee break in the Delta.

The latest shutdown came after a request from the state Department of Fish and Game, which also asked small water users in the south Delta to halt diversions. Fish and Game also suspended all scientific collection of smelt except for those needed to monitor the population.

The smelt is a translucent, minnow-like fish that has little commercial or recreational value. But it is a fragile fish that lives for only one year. It is extremely sensitive to water quality, so it is considered a strong indicator of the health of the entire Delta.

The smelt has been in a steep decline for three years, along with other species that share similar habitat, including striped bass, threadfin shad and longfin smelt. Biologists have been unable to explain the decline, but blame a combination of water exports, water contamination, and competition from wildlife not native to Delta waters.

The Delta is the hub of the state's water system, channeling abundant snowmelt in the north to dry regions in the south. But that function is increasingly threatened by crumbling levees, poor habitat and climate change.

"This just kind of underscores what a difficult dynamic we have in the Delta," said Fish and Game Director Ryan Broddrick. "The long-term health of the state, from an environmental and economic standpoint, requires finding a more durable solution."

The smelt are expected to move downstream to Suisun Bay -- a safe distance from the pumps -- when the water warms to 77 degrees. But tidal conditions and low runoff are combining to keep them deep in the estuary. It is unclear how long those conditions will last.

Politicians and biologists have struggled unsuccessfully for years to balance the competing needs of wildlife and water users, and it has become increasingly clear that a balance cannot be struck given how the Delta is used today.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed a panel of experts to figure out how to re-engineer the Delta to protect fish while it conveys water. The findings are more than a year away.

Water users and environmentalists separately praised the decision to cease pumping, but called for more action.

"This really highlights that the system is broken," said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He called for equally strong measures to control water contamination and invasive species. "I believe we are at a crisis point. This really feels like a lot of things piling up and making it very difficult to move water in this state."

Smelt are routinely killed in the course of normal export operations. This year, however, no smelt had been killed at the state pumps until May 25.

Young smelt began showing up at the pumps, and then the number killed began to grow. By Thursday morning, the state pumps had killed 216 smelt, and federal pumps 252.

This was alarming in light of low population survey results for the fingerling, which is listed as threatened under both the state and federal endangered species laws. An annual survey found only 25 smelt in the Delta locations sampled each spring, a drastic drop from a seven-year average of 353 fish found.

Two lawsuits recently dealt major blows to Delta water exports. In March, a state judge ruled that the DWR did not obtain proper permits under the state Endangered Species Act to kill smelt at the export pumps. Then last week, a federal judge in Fresno ruled that water exports did not offer enough protection to smelt under federal law.

Environmental groups speculated the DWR's move to halt pumping was aimed to avoid rigid action by the courts.

"Given the numbers, I think it's clear the courts would have stepped in and turned the pumps off if they hadn't voluntarily turned them off," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

Jennings said his group planned next week to seek a restraining order against state pumping operations to protect the smelt.

Water users south of San Luis Reservoir, near Los Banos, will continue receiving deliveries as expected during the shutdown from that source, which stores water pumped from the Delta. Many will also be able draw from local reservoirs and groundwater.

Those served by the South Bay Aqueduct, however, will not receive any Delta water during the shutdown and will have to rely on local sources.

About 2 million people in the Bay Area depend on that water for part of their supply. The East Bay cities of Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin are most vulnerable, with as much as 80 percent of their drinking water coming from the Delta through their wholesaler, the Zone 7 Water Agency, which is ramping up wells and planning conservation measures.

The only farms affected if the shutdown lasts more than 10 days are those that use water from canals and pipes fed directly by the Delta pumps. These include about 2,200 acres of almonds, alfalfa and vegetables in the Oak Flat Water District near Patterson. Some vineyards and olive orchards in the Livermore Valley may see cutbacks as well.

Bill Harrison, general manager of the Oak Flat district, said his area has poor groundwater but should be able to irrigate for a week using water already pumped into the canal that runs from the Delta to San Luis Reservoir.

After that, he said, "about 1,300 to 1,400 acres would be high and dry."

About the writer:

  • The Bee's Matt Weiser can be reached at (916) 321-1264 or mweiser@sacbee.com. Staff writers Chris Bowman and Jim Downing contributed to this report.

Vital links in the state's water system run side by side near Patterson in Stanislaus County: in the foreground the California Aqueduct and beyond it the Delta's Mendota Canal. Water into the aqueduct will be cut off for seven to 10 days. Sacramento Bee file, 2002/Dick Schmidt


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