There are two articles below: the first is an interview with the NRDC's Barry Nelson and the second is a news story about a scientific study of the Delta by the National Research Council. The NRDC and Barry Nelson continue to keep the myth afloat that "the core problem (of the Delta) is the amount of water we pump out of that system". They are intent on saying their talking point over and over again regardless of any scientific study that says otherwise. The National Research Council study isn't the first to conclude that "the independent panel largely confirmed the findings of other scientists, who have yet to pinpoint a single cause for the Delta's decline."
The story goes on to say "the science panel was specifically charged with ranking the problems or "stressors" affecting the Delta. But it was unable to do that. Instead, it said a complex 'mosaic of impacts' from numerous stressors on the environment makes pinpointing even leading causes impossible. For those reasons, it makes no sense at all to rank, because the ranking is meaningless."
So yet another study has concluded what other studies have said before: naming a single problem like water exports "makes no sense" yet the NRDC continues their mantra that it is the water exports causing the problem. For 20-years water exports have been curtailed to benefit the health of the Delta, yet things do not get better. It is time to address the 'mosaic' of other problems and it is time for the NRDC to stop blaming water exports. Please take off the blinders.
Water from the Delta has been fought over for more than a half century. Reporter Lauren Sommer sat down with Barry Nelson, the Senior Policy Analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council to discuss the future of the Delta and California’s water supply.
Barry Nelson, Senior Policy Analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
When were the first signs that the Delta ecosystem was in trouble?
Since the 1960s, we’ve seen a steadily growing trend of diversions from the Delta. If you look at long-term averages, you filter out the impacts of droughts and wet years, we’ve taken more and more and more water from the Delta pretty steadily for the last 50 years, and that really hit a crisis point in the ‘90s. That’s the point at which we started seeing the winter-run salmon and the Delta smelt being protected under the state and federal Endangered Species Act.
And ten years ago, things really changed dramatically. Starting in 2000, suddenly we started taking a lot more water out of the Delta for a lot of reasons. It was an enormous increase, about a 20% increase on average. And the ecosystem crashed. It was called the “pelagic organism decline.” But what it meant was pretty simple: that everything swimming in the Delta was in deep trouble.
So now we’ve got half a dozen species in deep trouble in the estuary and a fishing industry that’s honestly fighting for survival.
What caused their decline?
A lot of work has been done looking at this catastrophic, across-the-board, collapse of the Bay Delta ecosystem. And the bottom line was recognition that, while there are lots of stressors, there are pollution problems in the ecosystem. We do have invasive species like clams that have come from overseas. But the core problem is the amount of water we pump out of that system.
There was a huge fight in the courts over this issue. And ultimately, the courts and then the agencies imposed a new set of rules that really have returned us to the level of pumping we saw for about 30 years prior to the 2000’s.
And what were those rules on pumping?
Starting in 2000, suddenly we started taking a lot more water out of the Delta for a lot of reasons. It was an enormous increase, about a 20% increase on average. And the ecosystem crashed.
The Delta’s a complicated ecosystem. As water flows through it, it flows through it in a complicated pattern. Fish have evolved to survive with that pattern; water coming through at certain times of year, and flowing through those Delta channels into the Bay.
Basically, the federal rules control two things: the amount of water that flows all the way through the ecosystem into the Bay in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem and the extent to which some of the channels within the Delta flow backwards.
The pumps in the south Delta are so powerful that they literally reverse the direction of flow in these Delta channels. And if you’re a young migrating salmon swimming downstream towards the ocean as Mother Nature programmed you, when the Delta channels are flowing the wrong direction, it’s very easy for those fish to follow that water and get sucked right into the pumps. And that’s why those pumps have killed in the last decade or so not a million fish, not tens of millions of fish, but over a hundred million young fish killed just at the pumps.
So if you could design your ideal plan for the Delta, what would that look like?
First, we know we need to see some real habitat restoration in the Delta. We’ve converted almost every scrap of habitat in the Delta to farmland, and in order to restore a healthy Delta, we need to return some of that to habitat. And actually I think that’s something where there’s a fair amount of agreement. How you do that is not trivial, but I think there’s a fair amount of agreement around that. And given the challenge of maintaining all of the existing levees in perpetuity, the question is: are we going to do it in a planned and thoughtful way?
Second, we really don’t have a choice but to maintain a lot of our Delta levees for a couple of decades. It’s going to take a long time to make major changes in the Delta. And there is so much infrastructure, the Delta communities, Delta farming, and water supply that depend on Delta levees today.
Third, from our perspective, the challenge we face in terms of exporting water from the Delta is first figuring out how much water we can safely pump from the Delta. And then designing a facility around that.
You’re talking about the “peripheral canal,” right? A canal or tunnel that would take water around the Delta?
Well, there are two conflicting visions for a facility in the Delta. One is the old plan. Fifty years ago, the state of California was planning to build a peripheral canal around the Delta, an enormous facility that would allow those pumps in the south Delta to take water from the north Delta and pump it around the Delta rather than through Delta channels. And that was really a simple proposal to simply take more water from the ecosystem. We know now that that, the amount of water that that would have taken would have been devastating to the ecosystem.
That’s the old version of the canal. But there’s a new version out there. And that is a proposal to deal with earthquake risks in the Delta. It’s to deal with the fact that there really are earthquake risks in the Delta that represent significant threats to water supply. And a facility could provide a lifeline in case the Delta was to temporarily fail. What we’re struggling with right now is that we have competing interests in California advancing two different visions for what the problem is in the Delta.
With such a long history of disagreement, what are the chances of agreeing on a plan?
There’s a reason that the discussion on the Delta is so politically heated that people don’t usually talk about. And that is California is out of rivers. If you look around the state of California at the Colorado River and the Klamath River and the Trinity River, the Owens River, the San Joaquin, on and on, we’ve really started to hit real hard physical limits in the amount of water we can take out of all of those rivers.
Ten years ago we weren’t paying enough attention to sea level rise impacts. We weren’t really thinking about earthquake risks in, in the Delta. So there really is a sense that we need to figure this problem out this time.
That’s what makes the Delta debate so compelling. The Delta is an incredibly important ecosystem. It’s an incredibly important place for a quarter million people who live there. And it’s a tremendously important water supply for the state of California. There are a lot of reasons why our planning efforts today could fail, but it’s so important to the future of the state. It’s so important to the health of the Bay and the Bay Area, it’s so important to the future of the salmon industry, to the residents of the Delta. We can’t let that effort fail.
Prestigious panel agrees: Delta is stressed, with no easy fix
A comprehensive new study on the Delta's environmental problems concludes there is no easy fix, only hard choices, if California wants to restore fish species and still satisfy its water demands.
The study by the National Research Council, released Thursday, was conducted at the request of members of Congress and the Obama administration. The 17 participating scientists, from various disciplines and regions of the country, took two years to complete the report.
Those experts say Californians must accept "scarcity" as a new watchword for its statewide water supplies. That doesn't mean doing without, but recognizing everyone can't always have all the water they want.
It also means setting aside the idea that a single solution will restore the Delta.
Instead, the state must accept that a "mosaic of impacts" is jamming up the Delta's natural machinery in different ways and at different times. A holistic approach to science and policy is needed, rather than focusing on a single species or a single category of water users.
"There is no silver bullet," said Henry Vaux, professor emeritus of resource economics at UC Riverside and one of the study's co-authors.
"We're trying to give our fellow citizens a wake-up call that water scarcity is not simply limited to drought situations," he said, "but is more or less a constant
characteristic of the emerging water situation."
The study was unveiled amid high expectations that it might uncover a clear path out of the growing water and endangered species conflicts plaguing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a source of water for 25 million Californians.
But the independent panel largely confirmed the findings of other scientists, who have yet to pinpoint a single cause for the Delta's decline. Since 2002, nine native fish species have experienced steep population declines, capped by a declared "disaster" for Sacramento River salmon that included an unprecedented two-year closure of commercial fishing.
In an ominous coincidence Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that yet another Delta fish species belongs on the endangered species list: the longfin smelt.
Official listing for the fish, however, will wait until the service has sufficient resources to determine protective measures. In the meantime, the longfin will be a "candidate" for listing.
"That's unfortunate, and sort of reinforces that something else needs to be done to deal with some of these issues before longfin smelt and other listed species go extinct," said Erin Tobin, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that has brought numerous lawsuits to protect Delta species.
Tobin said the National Research Council report is not likely to become a "game changer." But she hopes it will persuade people to stop looking for easy solutions and start working together.
"We need to make some decisions about conservation and changing our lifestyles in order to have a healthy ecosystem and be able to supply water to the people who need it," she said.
Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, also praised the emphasis on broad solutions.
"The report makes clear the need for a multifaceted approach toward solving environmental challenges," Wade said in a statement. "Addressing these stressors collectively gives the Delta a better chance for recovery."
The science panel was specifically charged with ranking the problems or "stressors" affecting the Delta. But it was unable to do that. Instead, it said a complex "mosaic of impacts" from numerous stressors on the environment makes pinpointing even leading causes impossible.
Any one stressor – whether it is water diversions, pollution or invasive species – may have a disastrous effect depending on which endangered species is being examined, when and where.
"Efforts to reduce the effect of a single stressor are unlikely to reverse species decline," Vaux said. "For those reasons, it makes no sense at all to rank, because the ranking is meaningless."
The panel found that California needs to undertake an integrated planning effort to address the Delta's problems holistically. To do that, it needs to streamline the fragmented management of the Delta that exists today.
State lawmakers adopted a package of bills in 2009 that attempted just that. But the panel suggests it did not go far enough.
As just one example, lawmakers in 2009 took a pass on regulating groundwater, instead imposing only monitoring requirements.
The panel highlighted the interconnected nature of groundwater and surface water, and noted California is the only state that lacks any regulatory means to control groundwater overdraft.
It said California needs to continue to focus on conservation. The state should also exercise its legal authority under the public trust doctrine to redistribute water rights to address scarcity. It said the need for this is already apparent in drought years, and is likely to worsen with climate change.
"There is not now in the Delta, or in the state of California as a whole, sufficient quantities of water to satisfy all wants for it, at all times, everywhere," Vaux said.
He estimated California has about 10 years to address these problems, after which frequent crises will make planning effective solutions difficult.
READ THE REPORT
The new National Research Council report on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta can be found online