Recent fish surveys confirm what many biologists, ecologists, and water experts have known for some time – Delta smelt remain on the brink of extinction. Zero Delta smelt were found in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recent Fall Midwater Trawl Survey. Even the Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring Program, which is specifically designed to capture the tiny fish, only successfully caught two Delta smelt from September 8 to December 11, 2020.
Improving the health of native species like Delta smelt is an imperative, as it is critical to the health of our environment and the reliability of our water supplies. As an indicator species, the Delta smelt’s absence tells a grim story about the health of the Delta ecosystem, making these recent findings all the more concerning.
These results are not surprising, when California has made slow progress on actions like habitat restoration that are essential to restoring native fish populations.
For many years flows, meaning pumping from the Delta, have been blamed as the primary cause for the decline in Delta smelt. As a result, restrictions on pumping from the Delta have been the default approach to protecting these fish.
The fact that Delta smelt populations are still desperately low – despite years of restricted pumping – confirms that a flows-only approach isn’t effectively protecting Delta smelt populations.
Equally concerning is the fact that a flows only approach has at the same time had a detrimental impact on the agriculture industry and the communities that rely on surface water, not only in the Central Valley but for anyone who buys and eats food grown there.
In fact, there are a multitude of stressors on native fish populations – including invasive and predatory non-native species, loss of habitat, contaminants, and changes in food availability and quality – and restoring the health of Delta smelt requires a broad-based approach that includes targeted actions to effectively address all these factors.
Let’s use another analogy: Responding to the near-extinction of Delta smelt by relying on pumping restrictions alone is as effective in restoring their overall health as responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by relying on bar and restaurant restrictions alone. Can some data-based restrictions be a lever for change? Absolutely. But aggressive, austere restrictions that are not supported by the science cannot be relied upon to solve the entirety of the crisis – particularly when there are severe economic consequences associated with the restrictions, too.
Ultimately, we must pursue a combination of functional flow and non-flow measures, including habitat restoration and adaptive management, to meet the needs of native fish and wildlife species. Without a more holistic approach, the Delta smelt will go from endangered to extinct.
A regulatory approach has dominated water management in California over the past three decades. This was a significant shift from the development phase of California’s water system, as described by water policy expert Tim Quinn, former executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. Many believe that policy-makers and water users are making another transition, this time from conflict to collaboration.
Significant changes like this, where new or increasing demands lead to policy changes that increase resource scarcity, often generate resistance among the negatively impacted parties. In California, this resulted in warring factions fighting over water supplies, often in a zero-sum game of winner take all, or, more accurately, winner take most. The detrimental effect of the regulatory approach to water management on farms, farm jobs, rural communities, and California’s economy is squarely rooted in dwindling water supply reliability.
It’s important to note that not all water supply shortages are caused by regulatory restrictions. California’s variable hydrology also plays a role; however, the ultimate impact is intensified by the restrictions imposed by State and federal regulatory actions affecting the delivery of water to millions of people and millions of acres of farms throughout California.
Local Cooperation Increases Water Deliveries to Farms and Wildlife Refuges
At the local level, farmers on the west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley saw the reliability of their water supply contracts fall from about 90 percent in 1989 to roughly 30 percent in the last five years. These water supply restrictions were based mostly on environmental regulations intended to improve populations of Chinook salmon and Delta smelt, however numbers of the listed species continued to decline, despite the imposition of regulations that, over time, have redirected vast amounts of water from agricultural uses to environmental uses.
In an effort to respond to these policies and improve the reliability of their dwindling water supplies, local water agency members within the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority chose a different path, one of collaboration.
Starting locally, senior and junior water rights holders, along with wildlife refuges, began working together on multi-benefit projects that increased water conservation or modified the timing of water deliveries, providing additional water supplies for farms and flexible water management for the refuges. This collaborative effort helps deliver more water for irrigation in the summer, while increasing the ability to deliver supplies to refuges in the fall when it is needed most for waterfowl habitat.
The benefits of local cooperation are improved by recent policy decisions at the federal level to increase opportunities to deliver water to farms when its available, while at the same time, enhancing protections for endangered fish.
Federal Response Enhances Regulatory Structure to Improve Water Supply Reliability
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Aurelia Skipwith came to California recently to participate in a tour of California’s federal water infrastructure, the federal San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, and local farms near Los Banos. She brought with her a message of cooperation, unity, and a desire to continue to enhance the regulatory structure to improve the reliability of water supplies and improve protections provided for threatened and endangered species.
Director Skipwith comes from a background in the agricultural industry, has a law degree, and co-founded AVC Global, a company designed to reduce inefficiencies “…in buying and moving agricultural products from the farm to the final use,” according to the AVC Global web site.
Her primary responsibility is administering federal laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, which means her real-world experience developing partnerships, problem solving, and achieving goals while taking into account the people on the front lines where federal laws are implemented is a real asset. It’s clear that she brings a real-world perspective to her role as the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“President Trump’s (October 2018) Executive Order on water brought together agricultural, municipal, and environmental stakeholders to finish the update of the biological opinions,” she said.
That update had begun during the Obama Administration.
“Under a short timeframe, the parties had to work together to make it happen, she said. “President Trump, (Interior) Secretary Bernhardt and the Fish and Wildlife Service helped broker what was an amicable process.”
New Biological Opinions Improve Conditions for Water Users and Listed Species
The end result is a new set of biological opinions that have helped deliver more water to farms and provide better, more science-based solutions to species protections. Instead of the former calendar-based approach to species management, new science generated from 10 years of research into California’s Bay-Delta has improved protections for fish and helped deliver more water to the people who need it.
Director Skipwith also mentioned the Great American Outdoors Act, recently passed by Congress, to help end the
maintenance backlog at the country’s National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges.
“There is a $1.3 billion backlog of projects like this and $1 billion of it is in refuges. Refuges are public lands that need to be in good shape for the species that depend on them and they also need to be welcoming and accessible for the people who visit to enjoy the wildlife and open space. It’s a blessing to have bipartisan support for it,” she said.
She praised the efforts of local water agencies, including the members of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority for their efforts to forge agreements that include the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those agreements help local water users and the federal government operate more efficiently while delivering water to grow the nation’s food and to protect vitally important neighboring wildlife refuges.
Statement by California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade on the Adoption of the New Biological Opinions
“For the first time in more than a decade, the federal rules known as Biological Opinions are being updated. These rules exist to protect threatened species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region while also meeting the water supply needs of farms, businesses and people.
“The new Biological Opinions, based on more than 10 years of scientific study, will allow California to manage water in real-time using the latest science rather than relying on an arbitrary calendar approach that takes years to recognize updated research. The decade-old rules are based on outdated science and have failed to help Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other threatened species. And to keep us from once again letting rules get outdated while struggling species suffer, the new Biological Opinions allow for ongoing scientific review as well as independent evaluation by outside experts.
“Getting these rules right impacts the entire state. Water from the federally-run Central Valley Project delivers enough water to meet the needs of 1 million California households, over 3 million acres of some of the most productive farmland in the world and over a million-acre feet of water for fish and wildlife and their habitat, including state and federal wildlife refuges and wetlands. The State Water Project serves the water needs of 750,000 acres of productive farmland and the domestic water supply for two-thirds of all Californians. We applaud the Trump Administration as well as California leadership including Representatives Kevin McCarthy and Devin Nunes for their part in making this a reality.
“To be clear, this is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle that we hope includes new Voluntary Agreements on water. We support the Newsom Administration’s efforts to make water policy work better for all Californians.”
The new fact sheet helps clarify four areas where incorrect information has been circulated in public: the use of best available science, protections for species under the Endangered Species Act, how the new BiOps go farther to protect imperiled species, and the process by which the BiOps underwent peer review and approval.
Developing rules that are designed to protect California’s natural resources requires an open and transparent process. The Biological Opinion fact sheet includes a list of FWS and NMFS independent experts that reviewed them prior to their approval, ensuring that the final product will provide the species protections expected under the ESA.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the federal rules known as biological opinions that are intended to protect threatened and endangered species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta region. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a biological opinion, “…is a document that states the opinion of the service whether or not a federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.”
We are nearing the end of 10 years of implementation of the biological opinions that were adopted in 2008 and 2009 and aimed but failed to lead to the recovery of Delta smelt and Chinook salmon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
and National Marine Fisheries Service, two agencies responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act for different species, recently released updated versions of these biological opinions.
Calendar-based approach is outdated
Some stakeholders claim that existing calendar-based regulatory structures, rather than the new, real-time monitoring proposed under the updated rules are more protective of species. By contrast, many other stakeholders see a way to improve the reliability of water deliveries while also making positive changes in the environment. Specifically, we believe the new set of biological opinions actually increases protections for listed species and will help fish populations start to recover, rather than continue to decline as they have during the decade we’ve spent basing decisions on a calendar instead of emerging science.
Better protection for fish
So how are the new biological opinions an improvement over the previous ones? Here are four ways that fish receive the same or better protection moving forward.
1. Increased cold-water pool at Shasta. The additional amount of cold water that will be stored behind Shasta Dam will be used to maintain healthy temperatures AND will be managed better in order to protect salmon spawning in the Sacramento River.
2. Pumping restrictions related to salvage at the pumps. The salvage (or “take”) target for reducing pumping will be the 10-year average that was achieved under the old biological opinions. Some groups point to the old versions as the Gold Standard. Operating the Central Valley Project under the new biological opinions will not take any more fish than were taken under the old, outdated, and less flexible rules.
3. Investments in fisheries. Under the new biological opinions, $1.5 billion will be spent on fishery improvements. That includes investments in habitat, restored spawning grounds and side channels in rivers and streams that are important to the salmon life cycle. Net pens for smelt placed in the Yolo Bypass and various reaches of the Delta will help increase smelt populations from a current estimate of about 5,000 fish to a projected half a million by leveraging the existing captive population. This trend reversal is exciting and will be subject to annual reporting, a level of transparency that did not exist under the old rules.
4. Real-time monitoring. Under the new rules, pumping restrictions would be based on real-time monitoring of where smelt and migrating salmon are in the Delta, rather than the seasonal prescriptions contained in the current regulations. When we know exactly where fish are it is much easier to make determinations for water project operations that deliver more water for people without any increased risk for fish.
Flexibility for water users
Creating better habitat, improving stream flows, controlling predators, and protecting listed species from the pumps in the Delta can help turn the tide for California’s struggling fisheries. These improvements will translate into more flexibility for water operators, which is good for farms, homes, and businesses. It is the kind of success we have sought, but one that has been out of reach under the old biological opinions.
Statement by California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade on the Release of the New Biological Opinions
The release of the new Biological Opinions on salmon, Delta smelt and other species is good news for water users and the environment. Moving from an approach that used a calendar to make ecosystem decisions to one that uses the latest science is the smart way to provide better protection for California’s resources. New, more efficient protections for threatened and endangered fish are essential to being able to manage our water supply system in a way that optimizes it for farmers, urban water users, and dedicated environmental purposes.
The new Biological Opinions will play a critical role in helping implement Governor Gavin Newsom’s Voluntary Agreements, a process underway in California that will provide more water for environmental purposes, funds to pay for habitat improvement projects, and flexibility for water users who depend on reliable water supplies to grow our food.
This announcement is the culmination of more than 10 years of work to research better ways to understand and protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The biological opinions being replaced were based on an arbitrary, calendar-based approach, and have not delivered the successful recovery of salmon and Delta smelt populations. The new biological opinions also address threats to certain steelhead, green sturgeon, and killer whales, species cited as casualties in the outdated form of ecosystem management.
The new Biological Opinions mean that for farms, fish, and people, this is the dawn of a new science-based approach to water and ecosystem management. We are anxious to put these new policies into practice and expect to see a positive response for water users and the environment in the years to come.
STATEMENT: Voluntary Agreement on Water Represents the Future and Deserves Prop 68 Funding
By Mike Wade, Executive Director
California Farm Water Coalition
California has always prided itself on cutting-edge ideas. It is the place others turn to for new solutions to old problems. We are currently faced with a choice to continue that tradition of innovation with a fresh approach to water and environmental management or chain ourselves to outdated practices of the past.
Last fall, in a historic first, competing water interests came together to produce a voluntary agreement (VA) that will govern water use, habitat projects, and implement new science-based management practices. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) says the VA would, “increase flows in rivers and the Delta and make major investments in habitat. And perhaps most important, create sustainable funding for these efforts (including fees on water diversions), while improving scientific research on and governance of restoration efforts.”
This agreement is the result of years of collaboration between government agencies, water users and environmental interests, conducting scientific studies and projects that put the new science into practice. The VA takes us out of the slow grind of the existing regulatory process and allows us to use scientific structured decision-making to address problems as we go.
The California Legislature is considering a budget this week with funds specifically earmarked for the VA that could provide additional momentum to this progress. Funding from the voter-approved Proposition 68 will help jump start this science-based process. That would mean choosing science-based rules and voluntary, holistic approaches to problems rather than the outdated regulatory status quo. The PPIC says, “What’s clear is that negotiated solutions to water conflicts are fairer and longer-lasting than top-down regulatory solutions or, worse yet, litigated solutions where judges end up trying to manage water.”
And there’s no reason to cling to the past. It’s clear that the current outdated system isn’t working for anyone. Endangered fish populations continue to struggle; farmers face dwindling water supplies; urban users make continuous cutbacks; groundwater supplies are dangerously depleted; and current policy does not address new challenges we face from climate change.
One of the many things this process has revealed is that helping struggling fish populations takes more than water, which is important, but not the only habitat feature fish need. It takes a combination of water at the right time plus attention to habitat, food supply and predator control.
There are other ingredients essential to this agreement. Under the VA, change happens now. Additional water for environmental purposes and habitat restoration begins immediately. That means we reap the benefits today. The regulatory approach could take decades. Plus, in another important first, agricultural water users will pay fees to implement ongoing environmental projects. While there is a need for initial Prop 68 funding, user fees are critical to long-term success because they are an ongoing source of funding.
In a letter to legislators in support of the VA, a group of statewide organizations, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the Bay Area Council, summed it up this way: “The Voluntary Agreements provide a tremendous opportunity to provide more water for fish, wildlife and habitat restoration and a more reliable water supply for a growing state with climate and water supply challenges. The Voluntary Agreement will replace the policy and legal conflicts that have defined the last three decades. Instead, they rely on a collaborative and adaptive management process that will move the state substantially closer to the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.”
California must choose. The Voluntary Agreement represents the future and a new path away from a failed regulatory approach.
Bold Actions for People, Farms, and the Environment
The United States Bureau of Reclamation is commencing a process aimed at modernizing the operations of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP).For decades, the approaches to protecting the fish and wildlife dependent on the Bay-Delta watershed and estuary have been species-by-species and stressor-by stressor.Those approaches have failed.The effort by Reclamation responds to a consensus view within the scientific community and policy direction from the State of California – that, to improve protection and enhancement of fish and wildlife, comprehensive approaches are required.
The United States Bureau of Reclamation recently completed an important part of that process and issued what is known as a biological assessment. In simple terms, a biological assessment evaluates the possible effects that a project or action may have on a species listed as threatened or endangered as well as critical habitat protected by the Endangered Species Act. The assessment leads to a set of rules to help protect threatened or endangered species, in this case, salmon, Delta smelt, and other fish dependent on the Bay-Delta.
Reclamation’s biological assessment advances a proposed operation that responds to science and policy.It seeks to establish new rules that allow for operation of the CVP and SWP to meet the water supply needs of the people in urban and agricultural communities, within a suite of actions that address directlythe many physical, biological, and chemical factors that adversely affect the health of the ecosystem.
This biological assessment process is a critical step in protecting our environment and our water supply.The biological assessment looks back at what we’ve learned and applies it to future measures. In the case of the Bay-Delta, what we have been doing hasn’t worked as the health of the Bay-Delta continues to decline, with important species, like salmon and smelt continuing their death spiral to a point of near extinction. Without undertaking this process and without the bold step by Reclamation, we remain mired in mistakes of the past.
Release of the biological assessment is one effort of many required to improve conditions for fish and wildlife and make water supply more reliable.In December, California’s Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Chuck Bonham, and Director of the Department of Water Resources, Karla Nemeth, laid out another effort, a far-reaching plan that incorporates what we have learned from past errors and current studies and establishes an adaptive management program designed to react to new science for the benefit of the ecosystem as a whole.This comprehensive solution provides stable funding for habitat restoration and a more comprehensive approach to fish protection and enhancement, including efforts to reduce predation, eliminate passage barriers, and increase hatchery production. Now, all parties need to commit to moving beyond incremental change and take bold action by finalizing the voluntary agreements.
Governor Gavin Newson is the right person to lead California into a bold new future for people and the environment. He joined former Governor Brown and Senator Feinstein in supporting a comprehensive solution.The Farm Water Coalition had the opportunity in the not-too-distant past to host a tour into the heart of the San Joaquin Valley for then-Lieutenant Governor Newsom. We were impressed with his grasp of the issues, not only with respect to agriculture but for rural communities that depend on the farm economy and on the wildlife areas that partner with irrigation districts to improve water supply reliability for everyone.
Governor Newsom has been characterized as someone with big ideas and a willingness to take bold action. That’s what California needs as we look ahead to a new, overarching approach to protecting and enhancing the Bay-Delta and the water supplies of those in urban and agricultural areas as well as the willingness of locals to invest in that future.
On Wednesday, the State Water Board will vote to remove enough water from the system to irrigate over 200,000 acres of farmland or meet the annual domestic needs of 2 million people every year. If approved, this action will lead to one of the most preventable droughts California has faced.
How Will This Impact Our Food Supply?
Simply put, less water for farms will mean less of the fresh, local produce our families depend on.
California farmers have proven incredibly resilient in drought situations, employing the latest technology to do more with less. However, while you can grow food with less water you can’t grow it with no water.
In conjunction with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, as much as 1 million acres statewide may be fallowed due to the combined impact of these two overlapping regulations. Just ONE acre of land can yield almost 100,000 pounds of tomatoes or 36,000 heads of lettuce. Imagine the impact on California-grown tomatoes, lettuce, oranges, avocadoes, apples, strawberries, grapes, almonds, peaches and more if we have one MILLION acres less to grow our food? You can’t support California’s world-class orchards without reliable water supplies from year to year. The Water Board’s answer? Grow different crops. But farmers grow the crops people want, not the ones the State Water Board’s policy dictates.
Will there be less produce available, higher prices, fruits and vegetables that are less fresh because they must be shipped in, or all three? It’s hard to know exactly at this point, but the impacts for California consumers will be measurable and will not be limited to freshness and availability.
Our food has to come from somewhere, right? So, if we have less California produce available, then what? If we decrease our capacity at home, we put the safety and reliability of our fresh food supply in the hands of other countries that do not grow food under the same strict regulations that we follow in California.
In addition, our environment will suffer. Importing food to replace what we don’t grow at home means more ships, moretrucks, and more pollution.
There’s still time to adopt compromise plans supported by water districts, scientists, education officials, health departments, farmers, farm workers, cities, economic development officials and others ready to implement solutions that science tells us will help.
On Wednesday, the State Water Board will vote to redirect enough water in the system to irrigate over 200,000 acres of farmland or meet the annual domestic needs of 2 million people every year. If approved, this action will lead to one of the most preventable droughts California has ever faced.
Who will Benefit?
Sadly, no one. The Board claims that withholding this water from the human population will help fish. However, they are basing their assumptions on outdated science.
Water districts and farmers working with conservationists, government agencies and others have spent millions in the past decades studying the ecosystems of our rivers and ways to make them healthier. The resulting science has revealed a more complete vision of the problem and a holistic approach to solving it. There is growing agreement among scientists that fish need more than water to survive and thrive. We need to restore habitat, increase food supply and decrease the number of predators.In addition, we’ve learned that more important than the amount of water in the system is the timing of adding water to the system. These “functional flows” release water when, where and how it makes sense from a biological perspective.
Decades of following the water-only approach favored by the Board has had no effect – fish have continued to decline. And now, the benefits of moving away from exclusively focusing on the amount of water in the river and towards a more comprehensive approach have been documented and this strategy is now supported by our state’s most prominent water experts.
“Frankly, I think we have to get away from this notion of trying to do the math based on this much water for this many fish. That just doesn’t work. . . there is an argument that [more water] won’t make a significant enough difference unless you deal with all the other problems.”
Michael George, Delta Watermaster
“Large-scale habitat improvements in the south and central delta are key to improving salmon survival. Higher flows alone won’t be successful.”
Peter Moyle, Professor Emeritus, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis
“Simply increasing river flow represents a “sort of a scientific laziness related to the ‘fish-gotta-swim’ theory of environmental flows, like the more water you give them, the more of them there are going to be to swim.”
Jay Lund, Director, Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis
“Is the goal more water or is the goal more fish? If it’s about fish, there are better solutions.”
Doug Demko, President of Fishbio, environmental consulting firm
And Doug is correct – there are better ways. The Board’s own estimates say that the $100 million in annual community costs (local experts say the cost will be much more) will produce an additional 4,139 salmon. That’s almost $25,000 per fish. Science shows us we can do better with less devastation.
There’s still time to adopt compromise plans supported by water districts, scientists, education officials, health departments, farmers, farm workers, cities, economic development officials and others ready to implement solutions that science tells us will help.