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What's the Biggest Problem in the Delta?

The Sacramento Bee is trying their best to poo-poo the idea that sewage, ammonia, pathogen and pharmaceutical pollution from their sewage treatment plant are to blame

May 15, 2013

As the Bay Delta Conservation Plan comes closer and closer to becoming a reality, the NorCal interests are getting more and more opposed. The Sacramento Bee is trying their best to poo-poo the idea that sewage, ammonia, pathogen and pharmaceutical pollution from their sewage treatment plant are to blame for the Delta's demise, and are merely being used as misguided arguments by water interests in the San Joaquin Valley to blur the issue.

We would like to point out that farmers have suffered water cutbacks purportedly for the health of the Delta since the Central Valley Project Improvement Act in the early 90's. We have seen further flow reductions since the adoption of the biological opinions regarding the smelt and the salmon. No matter how flows have been reduced, the health of the Delta has continued to decline. It doesn't make any difference to the Delta polluters. Delta area interests continue to support bigger and bigger cuts to water flows pumped out of the Delta. We think this is a perfect example of Einstein's definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

We have had 20 years of reduced water exports out of the Delta and at the same time continued sewage, ammonia, pathogen and pharmaceutical dumping into the Delta from the Sacramento sewage treatment plant. How about we try giving the Central Valley the water it's due, and cut off the sewage for 20 years? We'll see if the Delta gets any better. It's only fair.

The fact of the matter is that Sacramento area polluters can no longer claim the moral high ground in this argument. They were ordered in 2010 in a decision by the State Water Resources Control Board to clean up their sewage. All they have done in the past 2&1/2 years is to fight the decision in court. They have been given until 2021 to clean up the ammonia, another 10 years to 2023 in the case of pathogens and pharmaceuticals. So, how do we deal with their pollution in the meantime? They cut off our water so they can use more of it for dilution of their pollution.

The Bee cites some scientific evidence to back up their theory, but the last scientific evidence we saw said science could not prioritize Delta stressors. According to Richard Noorgard, chair of the Delta Independent Science Board, "We're not in a position now - we may be in a position later - to say it's these three stressors that are causing 90 percent of the problem, or one stressor causing 45 percent of the problem." So, until the scientists figure it out, or until the pollution is cleaned up, can we please get some water?

One more thing that could be done right now: increase the limit on the not-endangered striped bass so they don't eat as many endangered smelt and salmon. How this could be such a brain-strainer for the powers-that-be is still a mystery to us.


Editorial: If BDCP were science-based, Delta flows would be a priority

Sacramento Bee

For more than a decade, the big farm and urban districts that have grown dependent on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have tried to discredit scientific findings that greater Delta flows are needed to recover endangered species.

"We don't think that these (proposed flows) do a lot of good for fish," said Daniel J. O'Hanlon, who represents the Westlands Water District and other contractors, at an April law conference in San Francisco. "We can't find a relation between fish abundance and flows."

The water contractors, which include Westlands and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, have argued that restored habitat and reduced ammonia pollution would be better for smelt, salmon and other fish. In fact, they are trying to make the claim – through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan – that new habitat and other non-flow measures should be enough to allow them to divert extra water from the Delta through a pair of proposed tunnels.

It's a convenient theory for water exporters. The only problem? Few, if any, independent scientists agree with them. Recently the Public Policy Institute of California asked 122 scientists with Delta expertise about the major stressors facing the estuary. The PPIC compared their responses with those of water exporters, Delta interests and other stakeholders.

Asked which stressors were most important in the degradation of the Delta ecosystem, 78 percent of scientists included flows in their top-two list, with 77 percent including habitat restoration. By contrast, water exporters ranked flows the least important, putting a high value on improving habitat and reducing discharges and invasive species, according to the report "Scientist and Stakeholder Views on the Delta Ecosystem."

As the PPIC concluded, "The lack of shared understanding on Delta science is a major obstacle to effective ecosystem investments. Most engaged stakeholders consult scientific and government reports regularly, but key groups that would be affected by change often come to different conclusions than most scientists (and other stakeholder groups) on the nature of both the problem and solutions."

As the PPIC is careful to point out, it is not just water exporters who put their own self-interested stamp on science. Delta interests put a low value on restoring parts of the Delta for new habitat, even though scientists put that in their top-two list of priorities.

Yet it is not the Delta interests who are driving the train in the Delta. Quite the opposite. For six years, the water exporters have been the force behind the hugely expensive Bay Delta Conservation Plan, arguing that little or no extra water is needed for the Delta, even though freshwater flows through the estuary have been reduced by half in most years. Meanwhile, the exporters have teamed up to finger ammonia from Sacramento's treatment plant as a major stressor, even though most scientists see it as a lower priority to flows and habitat restoration.

This editorial board has called on Gov. Jerry Brown not to approve any tunnel or other "conveyance" project for the Delta until there is a clear understanding among all parties on how much water would be available for the ecosystem, and how much is leftover for water exports. He and his aides want to study that question while the tunnels are built.

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