The agencies updated a rigid 2008 biological opinion concerning the endangered Delta smelt. The key changes mean real time management of the huge pumps near Tracy that supply water to 3 million Bay Area residents including Livermore, Pleasanton, Dublin and the Dougherty Valley in San Ramon. The combined state and federal pumps serve thousands of acres of agriculture as well as 27 million residents living south of the Delta.
The real time management means reducing pumping when the endangered smelt are nearby and taking advantage of windows when the fish is not present in the south Delta. The plan also includes improved management of Shasta Reservoir for cold water releases to help fall and winter run salmon reach their spawning areas and continued restoration of the Butte Creek salmon run near Redding.
The plan, developed by career-employees at the agencies relies on improved science that has been developed over the last decade. That includes a smelt hatchery operated at UC Davis and some tests that indicate hatchery-grown fish can survive in the wild (the smelt has a one-year life span).
As would be expected, the environmental groups howled and with some understandable concern. The Trump administration has made no secret about trying to improve water deliveries south of the Delta and the ongoing challenge will be monitoring operations to ensure that science is the over-arching concern.
The new opinion, which likely will be challenged in court, also puts Gov. Newsom’s veto of SB1 into new perspective. That legislation would have frozen regulations as of the day that President Trump took office in 2017, thus these improved regulations would not take effect without a court challenge.
The Livermore Valley’s water wholesaler, Zone 7, imports about 80 percent of its water through the Delta pumps in a normal year.
Valerie Pryor, the general manager, wrote in an email, “The proposed biological opinions are a new approach to fishery and water supply management based on science, research, data and real time monitoring of fishery conditions. Since this is a new approach, water supply contractors don’t know the impacts to water supply. But a approach based on science and real time data makes sense.
“The proposed biological opinions will protect fisheries and provide flexible water management that is based on fishery data and monitoring. If real time data and monitoring in the Delta show fish in the area, pumping can be stopped. If there aren’t fish in the area, then pumping wouldn’t have to be impacted. So while we don’t know the impacts of this new approach, we are pleased that the proposal will use the best available scientific data to protect fisheries but also be flexible with water supply.”
The new opinion, however, does not solve the broader reliability challenge. Newsom has scrapped former Gov. Brown’s twin tunnels under the Delta in favor of a single tunnel.
The overriding challenge is a conveyance was part of the State Water Project since it was designed back in the 1960s. Water released from the Shasta and Oroville dams flows into the Sacramento River and then is diverted south through the Delta against the normal east-west flow. A tunnel would divert water underground and then deliver it directly to the pumps. It likely would be operated in tandem—conditions permitting—with the surface flows.