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Feds Take New Look at Delta, Endangered Fish Species

SACRAMENTO BEE: The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have begun re-examining regulations governing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, raising questions about the twin tunnels plan.

Written by Dale Kasler Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Aerial photo of the region near Courtland where the proposed Sacramento-San Joaquin tunnels would start.Randall Benton, Sacramento Bee

Scientists from two federal agencies are about to overhaul the rules governing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, potentially increasing protections for endangered fish populations and limiting the amount of water pumped to Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will re-examine the nearly decade-old environmental regulations covering the Delta water pumps – rules that some experts say have been rendered nearly obsolete by drought and the devastation of endangered species. The old rules will remain in effect during the review, which could take two years or longer.

Even so, the fisheries agencies’ work could affect deliberations over Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial proposal to overhaul the Delta’s existing plumbing system by building a pair of giant tunnels beneath the heart of the estuary.

The examination has been widely anticipated and, in some circles, dreaded. In light of five years of drought and the drastic population decline of the delta smelt and other fish, many water experts believe the agencies will significantly tighten the environmental restrictions on the massive pumping stations near Tracy. That could mean less water shipped via the Delta to customers of the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project.

“The existing restrictions … may well be tightened,” said Jay Lund, director of U.C. Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences.

However, the agencies that operate the pumps refuse to make predictions about the outcome. The scientists could devise adjustments to the system “that don’t necessarily result in constraining (pumping) operations,” said Shane Hunt of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau runs the Central Valley Project.

The review process began Tuesday with a request from Reclamation and the state. Hunt said the bureau is legally obliged to initiate a review when it becomes clear the current rules are not working. He cited the “overall status of the fish, based on the beating they’ve taken in the drought.”

Nancy Vogel, for the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the State Water Project, called the examination a chance to take “a fresh look at the water project rules.”

The fisheries agencies are in charge of enforcing the Endangered Species Act, designed to protect troubled species such as the smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon from extinction. Delta pumping operations are governed by a pair of documents they created in 2008 and 2009, known as biological opinions. But many experts say those opinions are becoming increasingly outdated. The latest scientific tallies show the smelt in particular have been driven to the brink of extinction.

The review begins at a critical time. Brown’s tunnels plan is undergoing crucial hearings before the State Water Resources Control Board. The governor is also seeking a declaration from the same two federal fisheries agencies that the tunnels plan, known as California WaterFix, will comply with the Endangered Species Act. That review is separate from the examination begun Tuesday, which focuses exclusively on how the current system is functioning.

Some experts believe the examination of the current system could complicate the tunnels plan because the new biological opinions could result in less water being shipped south on a regular basis. If that happens, many south-of-Delta water agencies might resist paying for their share of the $15.5 billion tunnels project, saying it’s pointless to spend the money if water deliveries are going to decline anyway.

At least one big San Joaquin Valley water customer, however, is taking a wait-and-see approach on the environmental rules. Jason Peltier, general manager of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, said the new examination could prompt the fisheries agencies to discover ways of protecting fish without clamping down on pumping.

“The way they’ve been trying to protect the fish has failed,” Peltier said. “I want to be optimistic. I’m hopeful there will be a fresh look at the science.”

This story first appeared in the Sacramento Bee. For more coverage of the California drought and water issues, please visit the Sacramento Bee.

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