A new approach for managing California’s water and improving the environment

By Paul Souza, Barry Thom, and Ernest Conant, Special to CalMatters

Water is at the center of California’s economic and environmental health. The need to maintain reliable water supply for California’s farms, families and cities while protecting the environment has been at the forefront of our minds as we have worked to review and finalize a new operations plan for the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.

Together, these projects provide water for 25 million Californians and millions of acres of some of the most productive farmland in the world. 

The projects impact but also protect important commercial and recreational fisheries, wildlife refuges, and rare species.

Our three federal agencies have been developing and reviewing the proposed new operations for the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, and their effects on imperiled species, with the goal of ensuring they provide flexibility and water supply while also protecting the environment.

As a result, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in coordination with the California Department of Water Resources, has made several changes that address our goals to use the best available science, collaborate with partners, protect fisheries, and optimize water supply.

The plan includes a new approach to the challenging issue of cold water management at Shasta Reservoir, which is critical for spawning winter run Chinook salmon.  

With these new approaches, modeling shows that more cold water should be available in Lake Shasta to help successful egg incubation. 

The Bureau of Reclamation has proposed a new system of operating in a flexible way based on storage and has incorporated a new commitment to performance objectives and scientific peer review. Collectively, these new approaches will improve the likelihood that drought effects on winter-run Chinook will be lessened.

In addition, the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources have agreed to real-time Delta pumping operations based on new science and performance metrics to avoid fish getting trapped at the pumps. 

This regime includes curtailing pumping when fish are at risk. The Bureau of Reclamation’s commitment is that fisheries protections through Delta operations will be at least as protective or more so than previous strategies.

Further, the plan builds in $1.5 billion from the federal and state water projects to enhance science, restore habitat, and conserve hatcheries. These investments include millions of dollars for a conservation hatchery in the Delta that will assist the recovery of the Delta smelt and other species of concern.

Hatcheries have had an important long-standing role in fisheries protection in our country, and this action will help us meet our conservation goals in the San Francisco Bay and Delta. Our hatchery actions will occur in tandem with augmenting the food web and habitat restoration to improve the condition of these species in the wild.

The plan also expands efforts underway with Coleman National Fish Hatchery near Red Bluff and Livingston Stone hatchery in Redding to jumpstart the reintroduction of imperiled winter-run Chinook salmon populations into Battle Creek in Red Bluff.

This includes a commitment from the Bureau of Reclamation to spend $14 million to accelerate the work being done at Battle Creek to reintroduce salmon. We also are committed to our partnership with commercial and recreational fisheries organizations to use creative approaches for improving the health of salmon populations through our hatchery efforts.

Given the importance of salmon fisheries to Californians, our organizations have worked diligently to add strong safeguards with the goal of improving salmon since the difficult drought years of the last decade. 

Two of the last water years have been above average hydrologically, and these conditions, in concert with project operations, are showing evidence that populations will improve. 

Our estimates suggest the number of winter-run spawning is the highest in at least a decade. Early reports suggest that fall-run returns will be high as well.

Thanks to the diligent work of our dedicated staff, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that the proposed operations will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat. 

The plan provides the foundation for a more flexible operation that will allow us to achieve multiple goals. It also complements efforts underway by California to finalize voluntary agreements with water users.

In partnership, we can advance conservation efforts that are critical to this great state’s economy and vitality.

_____

Paul Souza is U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest regional director, [email protected]v.

Barry Thom is regional administrator for the West Coast Region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, [email protected]

Ernest Conant is regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior Region 10 – California-Great Basin, [email protected].

They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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