The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is looking into increasing the capacity of the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, a key water storage basin for the central San Joaquin Valley, says Michael Connor, who has been nominated by the president to become deputy U.S. Interior secretary.

Connor briefly mentioned a draft proposal for the expansion during a forum on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan that drew 500 people to Fresno State University.

The forum was marked by a general consensus that expansion of storage for water sent south of the delta should accompany proposed actions to increase water deliveries that could include improvements in ecosystem restoration and a much-debated plan to build two huge tunnels to divert river water for residents and farms before the water enters the delta, where much of it would go out to sea.

At the same time, panelists said added storage doesn’t necessarily result in more irrigation water being made available unless water can make its way from the delta to storage areas to the south.

The forum was also marked by frequent applause as members of three panels talked of a need for bipartisan action to address regulations that have limited deliveries of irrigation water during a year where shortages have been compounded by low precipitation. Some farmland has been idled in the wake of a 20 percent allocation for water delivered through the system, and there is speculation of a possible zero allocation next year.

Presented by the California Latino Water Coalition, the meeting was conducted in a question-and-answer format. It included some sharp exchanges between panelists over the Endangered Species Act, which is at the center of reduced deliveries of water.

Because of low rainfall and pumping restrictions, the 2 million acre-foot San Luis reservoir only holds 16 percent of its capacity right now.

Bureau Commissioner Connor did not elaborate on proposed expansion of the reservoir’s holding capacity, including how much its capacity would be increased, but said his agency is working on a draft appraisal, which describes the benefits, costs and feasibility of raising the dam. He said the appraisal should be ready in October.

During the forum, Connor was peppered with questions about what could be done to boost water deliveries in the face of biological opinions aimed at protecting fish in the delta.

Among his comments: “We need to move water with as little red tape as possible, to put in place more mechanisms to act with the urgency the situation calls for.”

He said his agency is seeking to try to improve “how we apply the Endangered Species Act,” avoiding blanket rules but adjusting pumping based on “understanding turbidity and location of smelt and salmon.”

Some audience members said that while they appreciated Connor’s visit to the region and his talks with farmers, they wished that the president himself and the secretary of the Interior would do likewise.

Food lines

In 2009, a crisis year for the Valley’s west side because of drought and deliveries at 10 percent, then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar took part in a similar forum at Fresno State.

Many in the audience at the latest forum recalled those days in 2009 that were marked by farmworker families standing in line in Mendota for food handouts, farmers having to idle thousands of acres of land and farm equipment dealers and other business operators struggling to survive.

Participants in the recent event included farmworkers, growers, mayors and council members from cities on the west side and elsewhere, along with other elected officials.

Panelist Chris Acree, executive director of Revive the San Joaquin, was the most outspoken in defense of the Endangered Species Act and very much in the minority among those present in the audience and on stage.

Acree called the act “a mechanism we’ve set for ourselves to protect ourselves from ourselves,” adding that when water quality gets so bad in the delta it cannot keep fish alive, it will not be fit for use in irrigation.

“We need fresh water for fish and farmers,” he said.

That brought a blunt response from Tom Birmingham, manager of the Westlands Water District.

“Chris, you’re a very brave man,” Birmingham said. “But I am sorry, I’m going to take off my hat as manager of the Westlands Water District and speak just as an individual. You’re just wrong, absolutely wrong. There’s absolutely no consideration to the effects (the act) has on human beings.”

Birmingham said he could not imagine that Congress members who passed the act in 1973 would have said, “We’re going to put people in a food line because we want to protect a fish that is smaller than my little finger. Protecting these fish is a laudable goal, and I agree with you it doesn’t have to be fish versus people, but the human species has to be considered as part of the evaluation.”

Earlier, Birmingham said there has been variability in the way biological opinions on protection of the fish is enforced, in some years allowing more flexibility and in other years being more absolute.

“One change in regulations that would provide protection for fish would simply be to say that we are going to operate the projects under the biological opinions at the upper end of the range as opposed to the lower end of the range,” he said.

Water leaders said there are other “ecosystem stressors” that imperil endangered fish, including such predators as striped bass and discharges of waste into the delta.

Some panelists said improved water deliveries hold promise for cities well outside the Central Valley where agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Joan Maher, with the Santa Clara Water District, said 40 percent of that district’s water supply comes through the delta and for some municipalities the figure is as high as 80 percent. She added that low water years can compromise water quality because as water in reservoirs drop, it leaves algae that adds to contamination.

John Coleman, vice president of the Association of California Water Agencies, pointed out that operation of the Port of Oakland depends in large measure on produce out of the Valley. “Forty percent of what they export is grown here,” he said. “We need to do a sales job to legislators beyond the Central Valley.”

One panel was made up of state and federal legislators. Much of their discussion focused on the likelihood of a state water bond making its way to the November ballot in 2014.

Two members of the state legislature – State Sen. Tom Berryhill and Assembly Member Henry T. Perea – said the proposed bond’s tab should be reduced, but that it also should result in “new water.”

“We need to ask if we can pare this down from $11 billion to a smaller amount that will be approved,” Perea said. “We need to put a bond on the ballot that will pass.”

Berryhill said there are “a couple billion dollars of pork we can cut out.”

 

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