SACRAMENTO (CN) - Opposing recommendations from federal and state agencies Wednesday, the head of California's water board advised regulators to deny agribusinesses' request for increased pumping from the Delta during the next two months.
The Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources want to pump more water from the Delta south to agribusinesses, due to California's historic drought.
State Water Resources Control Board Director Thomas Howard advised against it, in a standing-room-only audience full of state senators, farmers, fishermen and environmentalists.
Howard said the regulator should not expand the portion of the Temporary Urgency Change Petition (TUCP) which asks for increased export flows from the Delta during February and March.
The historic 95 percent mortality rate of winter-run Chinook salmon and low numbers of Delta smelt factored into the decision to shut the Delta's pumps, Howard said.
"Many fish species are already at historic low levels," Howard said. "It's not appropriate to expand what the board did last year."
Howard spoke Wednesday during an informal workshop that discussed the TUCP and other drought contingency plans with the water board. During a slide show, Howard said he agrees with the Department of Water Resources' petition, aside from the increased Delta flows.
"I approved what was essentially approved in 2014," Howard said.
Before Howard's presentation, several state senators and elected officials asked the water board to adopt the TUCP and comply with all of the Bureau of Reclamation's water requests. The Central Valley has been hit hardest by the drought and is the driver of California's agriculture industry.
"There is real human suffering from this drought, I wish you all would come down to my district," state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, told the water board.
Vidak and other state senators signed a letter urging the water board to reconsider Howard's decision.
"It is alarming that the executive director (an unelected bureaucrat) of the State Water Resources Control Board has denied increasing water to our valley as we enter a fourth devastating year of drought, even though the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all support the increase," Vidak said in a statement.
January brought no relief from the drought, as it was the driest on record, said Bill Croyle, drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources. Sixty-seven percent of the state is in extreme drought and 25 counties have declared local emergencies. The economic toll has come to more than $2.2 billion and 17,000 farming jobs have been lost.
Four busloads of farmers, farm workers and Central Valley residents drove through dense fog on the 200-mile trip north to Sacramento to ask the board to keep the Delta water flowing south.
Dressed in a T-shirt stating, "Let water flow to people, not fish," a farm worker from Huron said the lack of water is forcing her and many others to leave the Central Valley.
"The drastic change is affecting my health," Volsuda Acosta said through an interpreter. "Communities are more important than fish."
Howard's decision to deny additional pumping during the winter months may hurt Central Valley communities and farmers, but it's no clear victory for environmentalists, who say salmon and other species will continue to suffer from other measures of the TUCP.
"The State Water Board is again inexplicably and outrageously proposing to drastically relax minimal water quality and flow standards enacted to protect the Bay-Delta and tributary streams for the third year in a row," Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said in a statement.
The auditorium full of Californians struggling with water shortage acknowledged that only rain and snow can solve the crisis, and a lot of it. A recent NASA satellite study showed that California needs 11 trillion gallons of water to pull itself up from the four-year drought - the equivalent of filling up Lake Meade one and a half times.
"We were hoping for a stronger El Niño year; that hasn't happened," Croyle said. "We've set records that go back to 1850."
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