Farm Press Blog

Californians lose 800,000 acre-feet of water to 305 minnows

  • 800,000 acre-feet of water went to waste based on the science of four buckets of minnows.
  • Westlands general manager calls it "insanity."

It would take about four average size minnow buckets to hold 305 3-inch Delta smelt, yet that is number of minnows responsible for diverting enough water to the ocean to provide a year’s supply for 800,000 California families.

800,000 acre-feet of water went to waste based on the science of four buckets of minnows. That is enough water to produce crops on 200,000 acres or 10 million tons of tomatoes; 200 million boxes of lettuce; 20 million tons of grapes. You get the picture?

No wonder Tom Birmingham, the normally thoughtful and analytical general manager of Westlands Water District, responded with, "This insanity has to stop," when asked to respond to a Fresno Bee news reporter’s inquiry about the Federal Bureau of Reclamation’s initial water allocation of only 25 percent of federal water to San Joaquin Valley farmers.

This is not a drought year. The meager allotment is the result of too much water.

Heavy rains in November and December created a water flush through the Delta, herding the threatened Delta smelt/minnow south, closer to water pumps that move water from the Delta to the San Luis Reservoir, a storage terminal near Los Banos, Calif., that collects state and federal project water for movement south to urban Californians and San Joaquin Valley farmers. To protect the endangered minnows, the pumps were periodically stopped through the winter. No pumps; no water south. Just water west into the ocean.

The ridiculous environmental rules protecting the Delta minnow say the pumps can only gobble up 305 of the minnows in a water year, which ends Sept. 30. The count is already 232 — more than 75 percent of the limit. So to make sure pumps supply water to 25 million people and millions of acres of farmland consumes no more than four minnow buckets full of smelt — 800,000 acre-feet of water is gone.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition points out, “Despite the heavy rain and snowfall earlier this water year in December, farmers will be receiving less water than last year, which was a dry water year."

The initial 25 percent is the lowest since 2009 following a drought year, not a bureaucratic drought like this year.

Birmingham was quoted as saying had the 800,000 acre-feet not been flushed to the sea, the initial allocation would have “easily” been 40 percent to 45 percent.

Now, rather than having a somewhat optimistic water outlook this spring, farmers are X-ing out sections of farmland on 2013 crop production maps and looking at ways to cut their payrolls — all based on four buckets of minnows.

Not only is the 305 smelt-science shaky, but farmers and city dwellers point out that there are many factors impacting smelt populations, including predator species (some purposely introduced into the Delta), pollution, and discharge from city sewage. However, pumping seems to be the smelt’s public enemy No. 1.

Of course, radical environmentalists want to shut down the pumps totally, claiming groundwater banking south of the Delta would solve California’s growing water crisis. The one question I have for this insightful, brainy group: Where do you think that water would come from for groundwater banking?

Most likely it would come from north of the Delta where the majority of California’s water originates. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect some of that 800,000 acre-feet lost this year could have been deposited in groundwater banks.

“Insanity” is putting it mildly.

Discuss this Blog Entry 14

akaabe (not verified)
on Feb 27, 2013

How can any reasonably educated person refer to water that is allowed to stay in a river channel as "diverted" or "wasted?" As long as that attitude prevails, our rivers don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of surviving. I'm not a huge proponent of heavy handed government, but in this case, it is absolutely necessary to prevent water mongering morons from completely destroying our rivers and fragile delta.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 27, 2013

Bad Math: The water in the river is not saving 305 minnows -- that many are allowed to be killed -- it's all the rest that are saved. And all the other fish species. And all the other benefits of having a healthy river and delta. That hypothetical 800,000 families doesn't make sense either -- everyone has functioning plumbing in their house. And is anyone starving because we don't have enough tomatoes, lettuce, and grapes? Food is still incredibly cheap here. This year's "meager water allotment" is about average for these farmers with the LOWEST PRIORITY WATER RIGHT IN THE SYSTEM. That's why they've always grown annual crops -- with water IF AND WHEN AVAILABLE.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 28, 2013

It seems to me that CA has way to many problems with water.
Maybe they should stop living in a desert and cut the water of to their lawns.
Screwing Agriculture for green grass in the desert is crazy.
And the brainpan that thought up this one should foot the 30% increase in veggies.
You guys out there kill me with this crap.
If you move to the east coast go live in WV on some hillside-don't bother us with your stupidity.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 28, 2013

How is it possible to get an accurate count of the number of minnows that a went through a pump?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 28, 2013

The minnows are counted using the same math techniques that the stimulus used in calculating all the "saved or created" jobs. On its face this study falls apart, if they can actually count the number of minnows that have gone through the pump I am quite certain a method of blocking them could be developed. Typical enviro garbage.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 28, 2013

Not a drought year? Really? The General Manager of Westlands Water District should invest in a rain gauge.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 28, 2013

I'm sure all my friends who used to work as salmon fishermen are crying for the 600 or so welfare recipients who make up the Westlands Water District. Ya'll make me sick.

But even better -- Having spent a couple generations getting rich by sucking NorCal rivers dry while cynically exploiting the misery of migrant farmworkers, to now say 'if you don't keep giving us your water, we'll have to fire all these farmworkers' is a incredible act of chutzpah. That's so breathtakingly shameless that I'm actually kinda impressed.

Cam (not verified)
on Feb 28, 2013

When will all Californians get on the same page and realize agriculture is the #1 industry in the state and actually has the ability of solving the debt issue. Last time I checked farmers still feed the world. Give ag what it needs so bills can be paid. What a shame when you cut off the hands that feed you.

prariemary (not verified)
on Jun 14, 2016

Californians need to look at the big picture and find out who is really trying to control agriculture in California by controlling water under the disguise of our federal EPA. We know that our EPA has sold out to Monsanto! Follow the money! By the way, farmers in California do NOT need to feed the world..they need to feed people in the US first!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 5, 2013

Water usage and rights is OBVIOUSLY california's big problem, but only because we expect SO MUCH! With so much of the complaining coming from areas that were exploited and ruined hydrologically and insisting on mass populations of people living in the gal darn desert and - yes - wanting their ridiculous lawns and golf courses... i say tee off in the sand and dirt and plant some native species instead of grass. As for the farmers, tough luck guys/gals - California's overall waterway and species' health has to be MORE important to our future. Our children's children's children still need to be able to do the farmworking you're hoping to protect and the waterways need to be healthy or the capitalist land they farm will be devoid of nature/truth/sustainability and be more like artificially farming the moon than enjoying true California Agriculture - which is a beautiful thing!

on Feb 24, 2014

This article is now a year old, and the press is full of reports about this year's California drought. Would someone care to update this article to cover the current situation, please? How much of the current mess is due to similar issues?

on Feb 27, 2014

This editorial contends that much of the severity of this year's drought is also caused by politics:

Is it correct?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 13, 2016

The delta smelt, is not native. Period. This fish is actually an invasive species, yet it's listed as endangered. Ask yourself this, "what's their real game?"

Californian (not verified)
on Jun 20, 2016

Don't plant trees and vines in toxic ground that can't hold water and leaves salts and heavy metals that are being pumped back into the San Joaquin river!!This makes the sjr the second most endangered river in the USA!!FOLLOW THE MONEY!!

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