Despite wetter-than-average weather in California, some farmers are looking at another year of a zero federal water allocation even as the billions of gallons of water continue to be dumped into the ocean in order to save a three-inch fish.
The worst part for many lawmakers at Wednesday’s House subcommittee hearing is that the Delta smelt remains as vulnerable as ever after the loss of 1.4 trillion gallons of water since 2008 under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“I’d feel a little bit better about it if we were being successful, if we were propagating the Delta smelt and we were increasing the salmon run. At least you could see a cause and an effect,” said Rep. Jim Costa, California Democrat. “But I think you can’t see a cause and effect because the science and biological opinions are flawed.”
David Murillo, Bureau of Reclamation mid-Pacific regional director, acknowledged Wednesday that “the abundance of the Delta smelt is pretty low right now,” but that the federal government must continue to flush water from the Sacramento Delta in order to comply with the ESA.
An estimated 162 billion gallons are expected to be diverted this year into the Pacific Ocean via the San Francisco Bay in order to improve ecological conditions for the nearly extinct species.
“We’ve got to not only take a look at providing project [water] yield, we’ve also got to comply with the law,” Mr. Murillo told the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans. “And the law says we’ve got to protect certain species, the Delta smelt and the winter-run salmon, and we’re doing that. And I know that people are disappointed with the operations.”
He received no sympathy from Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, who called the policy “lunacy.”
“So we’ve not only decimated our economy, we’ve not only done enormous harm to millions of people, but we haven’t accomplished the stated purpose of these laws, which was to improve the environment,” Mr. McClintock said. “In fact, I would say we’ve actually harmed the environment.”
The oversight hearing comes with California enjoying fuller reservoirs and above-average snowpack, thanks to a much-needed 2016 El Nino wet-weather cycle. Even so, some growers in the San Joaquin Valley may once again receive a zero allocation of surface water.
Mr. Murillo agreed that this year’s initial BOR projections show the water allocation for some farmers will be “close to zero,” citing the accumulated years of drought.
“In order for us to be able to be able to improve the allocations to the junior [water-rights] holders — we’re impacted by the drought. We’re going to have to have some wet years,” Mr. Murillo said.
Tom Birmingham, general manager and counsel for the Westlands Water District in Fresno, compared the situation with the outrage over contaminated water supplies in Flint, Michigan.
“Where’s the outrage that it’s governmental policies that have created zero water supplies for communities in the San Joaquin Valley, for disadvantaged communities that have no resources?” Mr. Birmingham asked.
He said that in January and February, “despite the improved hydrology [and] increased inflow, the Delta smelt biological opinion has cost 500,000 acre feet of water. That’s enough to irrigate 200,000 acres of land, to produce tens of thousands of jobs.”
Pushing back was Rep. Jared Huffman, California Democrat, who accused Republicans of using the hearing to revive “tired old narratives, blaming the drought on environmental protection, instead of focusing on real drought solutions.”
“We’re here instead of that to wage another ideological battle against the Endangered Species Act, against the three-inch, lowly Delta smelt, and to tell people there’s a manmade drought caused by environmental protections, which is simply bunk,” Mr. Huffman said.
He said that ESA mandates accounted for “a mere 2 percent of the Central Valley Project’s water supply reduction in 2014, and the state Water Board estimates that in 2015, only 2 percent of all runoff in the Bay Delta watershed flowed to San Francisco Bay solely for environmental protection.”
“Only 2 percent, and yet still that is some kind of a political outrage here in Washington today,” Mr. Huffman said.
Asked which factors have contributed to California’s water shortage, Mr. Murillo cited both the drought and the endangered-species mandates.
“We can’t ignore the fact that we’ve had low hydrology for the last three or four years. It’s there. That’s what’s impacting our carryover, that’s what’s impacting our operations,” Mr. Murillo said. “In addition to that, we do have some biological opinions that we have to comply with.”
The committee also focused on how to take advantage of the current El Nino wet-weather cycle in order to shore up water supplies before the return of drier conditions in the growing state.
Standing in the way are federal ESA and environmental regulations that make solutions such as building more storage capacity impracticable, forcing California to rely on helpful but ultimately inadequate fixes like increased conservation, said critics at the hearing.
“There’s a false belief within the state of California that if you have grass in your yard or have a swimming pool, that’s the cause of the drought,” said Brett R. Barbre, director of Orange County’s Municipal Water District.
“Metropolitan [Water District] invested $400 million telling people to tear out their grass,” Mr. Barbre said. “We can conserve all we want, but it’s not going to make a long-term difference. We still need storage.”
Rep. Paul Gosar, Arizona Republican, said environmental groups have used litigation to tie up reservoir and dam projects while going after existing storage facilities such as the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in northern Arizona.
“We are now watching those projects and the communities that rely on them being killed by a thousand cuts,” Mr. Gosar said. “Rationing is now standard practice almost everywhere and the wasteland is slowly returning. That needs to change.”
Mr. Costa joined Republicans in blasting the possibility of another zero-allocation year in the San Joaquin Valley, saying the situation was “unacceptable, it’s unavoidable, and it’s immoral.”
He said the heavily Hispanic and agriculture-dependent Central Valley suffers from high unemployment and poverty, made worse by environmental regulations. Last year, he said, 600,000 acres of former productive farmland were left fallow.
“Let’s be clear: We’ve been operating these projects during these drought conditions for one first priority only, and that is to try to protect the survivability of Delta smelt and other species,” Mr. Costa said. “We’ve put that priority over people.”