California at a Crossroads, Faces Biggest Drought Year Yet
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California has a water crisis but, contrary to what many believe, a tiny fish is not the cause of this ongoing problem. There simply isn't enough rain and snow in a dry year, like this one, to meet projected demands for water.
We've known for years that water exports from the Bay-Delta cannot continue growing to meet California's water needs. Both the law and the science were settled awhile ago: we've diverted too much water from the Delta for too long, as the Governor's Delta Vision Task Force recently concluded. And with climate change, the ecological crisis in the Delta, the closure of California's salmon fishery, and the potential for a catastrophic levee failure, if we don't change our ways, the future looks grim for both people and fish.
That's why it isn't surprising that the California Department of Fish and Game today considered water pumping restrictions in the Bay-Delta to protect longfin smelt from being sucked into the export pumps of the state and federal water projects. The longfin smelt was historically one of the most abundant fish species in the Bay-Delta, but in the past several decades its population has been plummeting and is now at risk of extinction (joining a long list of species that are declining as a result of unsustainable actions in the estuary). This review was triggered by DFG finding the fish near the export pumps (you can see a map of where the fish currently are here). The regulatory process is designed to keep these the fish from being sucked into the pumps, which has been a significant source of mortality: DFG estimates that more than 1.5 million adult and juvenile longfin smelt, and millions more larvae, have been killed by the water projects since 1993.
We hope that the Department is right that current operations will prevent significant numbers of longfin smelt from being sucked into the pumps, and we expect that DFG will closely monitor the situation and take prompt action in future weeks if there is a problem. But whether today or a month from now, there's a good chance that restrictions will be imposed to prevent a problem from occurring, whether because of longfin smelt or because of one of the other endangered and threatened fish that the pumps put at risk. Today's action is a reminder that our water resources are fragile and we need to continue to invest in new ways to replenish our water supply without relying on the Delta.
In fact, reductions of water exports from the Delta are inevitable. In the early 2000s, water exports were at historically high levels (5 of the 6 highest levels of water exports in the history of the CVP and SWP occurred in the past 8 years). For the foreseeable future, we're likely to have to return to water export levels seen in the 1990s.
Bottom line: California is at a crossroads; it can either follow its old course toward drought, failed crops, failing fisheries, and an insufficient drinking water supply - or it can commit to a new, smart-water solution for the 21st century.
We cannot continue to meet California's water needs the way we have in the past.
Fortunately, there is a solution. We can obtain real water from a Virtual River of water efficiency, trimming water waste, recycling wastewater, and capturing rainwater in urban areas before it flows into storm drains. There's more water available from these sources than we've ever exported from the Delta.
We're already seeing important steps forward to get the water flowing from these environmentally friendly alternative sources: