As storms swell California’s reservoirs, state water officials have rescinded a controversial order that allowed more water storage in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while putting salmon and other endangered fish at risk.
Ten environmental groups had petitioned the board to rescind its order, calling it “arbitrary and capricious, contrary to law, and…not supported by substantial evidence.”
The reason for the state’s reversal, according to the State Water Resources Control Board, is that conditions in the Delta have changed as storms boost the snowpack and runoff used to supply water to cities and farms.
“An urgent need for the changes no longer exists, the changes are no longer in the public interest, and the impacts of the changes on fish and wildlife are no longer reasonable,” Eileen Sobeck, the water board’s executive director, wrote in a new order reversing the earlier one.
Sobeck wrote that the reversal was based on “improved hydrology and in consideration of the public comments and the petition (from environmental groups) for reconsideration.”
The decision was a victory for environmentalists, but they say it comes too late. The original order was issued on Feb. 21, so it allowed flows through the Delta to be curtailed for 16 days until it was reversed.
Jon Rosenfield, science director with San Francisco Baykeeper, said the water board is “acknowledging what we knew all along — that there is no drought emergency & eliminating minimum flow requirements that protect water quality, fish, and wildlife is not in the public interest.”
Rosenfield added that rescinding the waiver is a hollow gesture because salmon, Delta smelt and other fish already suffered for more than two weeks.
The waiver reduced the volume of water flowing through the Delta into San Francisco Bay to only about half of the volume required under state rules. When Delta flows drop below critical levels, fish become more vulnerable to predators and can be killed by water export pumps.
Rosenfield said the “practical effect” of the reversal “is nil, because there was already damage done in February, and as far as March goes, these storms are causing upstream reservoir releases and causing a lot of runoff.”
Through February, the state’s rules would have required 29,200 cubic feet per second of water be allowed through Delta. The Feb. 21 waiver cut that to less than 15,000.
The original order was issued in response to a request from the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operate the state’s major reservoirs, to relax rules that restrict flows into San Francisco Bay.
The intent of the waiver was to store more water and eventually send it to cities and growers that receive supplies through the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. The state aqueduct delivers water to 27 million people, mostly in Southern California, and 750,000 acres of farmland, while the Central Valley Project mostly serves farms.
The waiver came after water suppliers and growers had criticized the state for “wasting” water during the January storms by letting it flow through rivers out to sea instead of capturing it in reservoirs. Gov. Gavin Newsom had asked the water board to waive the rules, and suspended two environmental laws to allow it to happen.
Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, which delivers state aqueduct water to cities and farms, said the unpredictability of weather patterns justified the board’s action in February. She said the state made the right decision then, and its reversal is the right decision now.
“At the time the order was granted, the forecast was dry,” she said. “Nobody could have known if it was going to get dry or get wet. Fortunately, it has gotten wetter.”
Sobeck wrote in the initial order that the waiver was permissible only if it’s made in the public interest and “will not result in unreasonable effects to fish and wildlife.”
The announcement of the reversal came at almost 10 p.m. on Thursday, a day after other state water officials had opened up the “floodgates” at reservoirs to release water because storms were approaching.
The water board originally waived the rules through March 31. As a result of recent storms, however, more water than could be physically captured in reservoirs or pumped from the Delta was flowing into San Francisco Bay. As of today, Rosenfield said, it was measured at 38,500 cubic feet per second, significantly above the state’s flow standard.
“That’s part of what we’ve been saying – you don’t need these waivers in a wet year,” said Greg Reis, a hydrologist with The Bay Institute, another group that protested the water board’s February actions.
Chris White, executive director of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority, which represents Central Valley farmers, said the order waiving the rules in February wasn’t just a measure to help farmers and water suppliers.
“It was a win-win-win for urban, ag and the environment,” he said, explaining that water stored in upstream reservoirs now can be used later in the year to benefit the Delta ecosystem.
Rosenfield said with or without the board’s waiver, adequate flows that meet the state’s standards would already be reaching the bay now — but only thanks to the whims of nature.
“That’s the sad story of the bay’s ecosystem now — it can only get the water that’s leftover, that we can’t possibly capture,” he said.