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ESA blamed for low flows

California projects record-low water deliveries in 2010

By Wes Sander, Capital Press 12/3/09

SACRAMENTO -- Water interests this week blamed environmental rules for pushing the state's projected 2010 water deliveries to record low levels.

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the state Department of Water Resources announced it expected to deliver 5 percent of contracted agencies' requests, which were 100 percent of their contracted amounts.

It was the lowest initial allocation since 1993, when it projected delivering only 10 percent. That year's allocations eventually reached 100 percent as the state began recovering from a severe drought.

Last year, the state predicted it would deliver 15 percent but boosted that number to 40 percent by May.

DWR says it expects allocations to increase through the water year, as they normally do. But Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, warns against higher expectations.

"Even if the coming months bring a return to normal rainfall, we can't assume that our water supply outlook will improve significantly," Quinn said in a statement. "Regulatory restrictions to protect species will make it difficult to deliver water even if it is available."

So far in the season, precipitation has remained low. If total rain and snowfall reach average next spring, contractors can expect anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of deliveries, DWR stated. Uncertainty over environmental regulations accounts for the difference.

While the federal biological opinions of the past year governing salmon and the Delta smelt are not responsible for most of the low allocation, removing them would still allow enough improvement to make a big difference for San Joaquin Valley farmers, said Curtis Creel, water resources manager with the Kern County Water Agency.

"If not for the biological opinions, we would be looking at a 10 (to)15 percent allocation right now," Creel said.

State Sen. Dave Cogdill, who authored the $11.1 billion water bond that will go before voters next year, said ongoing and future drought conditions combine with modern regulations to point out the necessity of new storage. Cogdill's bond would allocate money for dams.

"While conservation is an important short-term solution, we must make an investment in building more water storage so that we are able to endure the inevitable dry year," Cogdill said in a statement following DWR's announcement.

Creel, of the Kern County agency, said the local Kern Water Bank is reaching depletion because of reduced deliveries. The multi-district Kern Water Bank Authority is close to tapping out the 200,000 to 300,000 acre-feet it stored in the underlying aquifer during wet years, he said.

"We're kind of in new territory, because the rate at which you can extract water changes as you continue to pull water out of the ground," Creel said. "At some point, it slows down so much that you can't pull the water out fast enough to keep your crops alive."

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