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Why Is The EPA In The Delta?

Why after decades of studies has the EPA decided to get involved at this time?

Feb 15, 2011


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FEBRUARY 15 2011

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Why Is The EPA In The Delta?

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it is getting involved in the Delta water quality issue.  This is an interesting development in that the Delta is already being studied quite sufficiently by several different state and federal boards, organizations and agencies.  Why after decades of studies has the EPA decided to get involved at this time?  Before we answer that question, let's take a look back.  In 1992 the Central Valley Project Improvement Act took water from farmers in an effort to benefit the health of the Delta by keeping more water flowing through it.  Over the years, despite this increased water for the Delta, the ecosystem has been in a state of continual decline.  Now, other stressors are being looked at including sewage discharges from cities like Sacramento, predators like the striped bass, pollution runoff from neighborhoods, and pharmaceuticals like estrogen and viagra. 

We now have the Delta Stewardship Council, the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan(BDCP), the Delta Independent Science Board and the State Water Resource Control Board's recently appointed Delta Watermaster all looking at solutions for the health of the Delta.  In addition, we now have newly elected Governor Jerry Brown and his recent appointment of Gerald Meral as the Deputy Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency in charge of the Bay Delta Conservation Planning and Funding program.  They are both supporters of a peripheral canal. 

Remember, Jerry Brown advocated for a peripheral canal in his last term as Governor in the early 80s, but it was turned down by voters at the ballot box.  Jerry Brown is also the son of Pat Brown who as the Governor was instrumental in the building of the Aqueduct and the reservoirs such as the San Luis project that supplied water to Central Valley farmers and our urban neighbors in Southern California. 

Why a peripheral canal?  We will let the environmentalists write their 10-volume set on why it's a bad idea, but we will give you the Reader's Digest version of why it might be a good idea.  There are two main points:  1) By diverting water around the Delta, we eliminate the problem of commingling fresh water with salt water that inevitably happens when the Delta meets the San Francisco Bay.  Although the salt increase of the water being diverted through the pumps at Tracy is slight, it does increase salt added to the soil on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley.  In the long run this would also help the taxpayers because the courts have ruled that the federal government is responsible for not living up to their contract, which has led to the drainage problems on the westside of the Valley.  2) By diverting water around the Delta, we eliminate the problem of pumping at Tracy which has caused so many problems for the Delta Smelt and Coho Salmon that Federal Judge Oliver Wanger is so fond of writing about. 

Jerry Brown and Gerald Meral both seem to believe that the peripheral canal is a practical solution to the problem of moving water from Northern California to Central and Southern California.  The BDCP's co-equal goals are to find a way to balance species/habitat protection in the Delta and improving water supply reliability.  Although there are many obstacles before there could ever be a peripheral canal, it looks to be the top choice of several possible solutions.  But, it is not a popular option with a lot of environmental groups who want more fresh water flowing through the Delta, not around it. 

So, back to the EPA.  Why their involvment now?  Could it be that environental interests who see the peripheral canal as a real possibility/threat have pressured the Obama Administration to get involved to stop this?  Now that it appears more pragmatic people here in California are coming together to solve California's long term water problems, we have the EPA jumping into the mix.  These environmental groups have always been able to get their way before and haven't needed the EPA to get involved, but now things are changing.  Why the EPA now?  Could it be because they need them now?  Just asking. 

The Bay Citizen

Feds May Crack Down on Delta Pollution

New rules to prevent an ecological collapse could force big changes on governments, businesses and farmers
By: John Upton

Central Valley farming practices, Northern California sewage plants and other government and business operations could be forcibly overhauled by the federal government in a bid to rescue a sprawling waterway from ecological collapse.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday it will study the impacts of fertilizer use, industrial pollution, habitat destruction and other factors on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta system stretching to San Francisco Bay.

The study will be followed by the creation of new rules governing the waterway, which runs from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Golden Gate and provides water to 25 million Californians and 4 million acres of farmland. Debate over the new regulations is scheduled to begin next year.

“We all realize that the delta system is in crisis,” EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said.

Problems such as the growth of toxic blue-green algae, dammed rivers, changes in salt levels and invasive jellyfish have led populations of native fish, including smelt and salmon, to the brink of extinction.

Blumenfeld described the federal project as a “companion piece” to a high-profile effort under way at the state level to create a Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.

“The question is, how do we all collaborate effectively together to make sure that the individual efforts cumulatively add up to the protections that we all seek; and is the EPA doing everything it can under the Clean Water Act to protect the quality of water in the delta estuary,” Blumenfeld said.

Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute, said exports of water out of the delta for use by farms, homes and businesses are the biggest single factor causing native fish to disappear and allowing invasive species to thrive.

“One thing that’s going to help address all of those problems is improving freshwater flow conditions into the estauary,” Rosenfield said. “The flow will dilute chemical concentrations if they’re too high. Restoring the natural patterns of flow and availability of fresh water flow is going to help control invasive species as well.”

Rosenfield called on the EPA to consider water flow as part of its new study. Blumenfeld, however, said that various court cases are currently dealing with those issues, and that they may not be directly addressed by the EPA's new regulations.

“What we care about its getting to a place where the water quality standards are met,” he said. “Ultimately, how water goes in and out of the delta is critical and those issues are being played out” in court rooms and other venues.

The public will have two months to comment on the effectiveness of current delta management practices and agency research priorities.

“I hope they think about how these contaminants interact in the Delta,” Clean Water Action official Jennifer Clary wrote in an e-mail. “One frustrating thing about our regulatory system is that we tend to look at problems individually instead of trying to figure out how they interact in the environment.”

The state’s biggest water customers, meanwhile, called on the EPA to avoid duplicating or complicating work being done at the state level.

“EPA's announcement comes as water managers and others across the state are striving to address the Delta's serious challenges,” Association of California Water Agencies Executive Director Timothy Quinn said in a statement. “It is incumbent on the federal government to coordinate any new EPA efforts with the BDCP process.”


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