The consolidated salmonid cases and us

Posted on | May 25, 2010 | 1 Comment

Last week in the Eastern District Court in Fresno, Judge Oliver Wanger derided federal biologists for employing “guesstimations” as to how much Sierra snowmelt should be allowed to flow through the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers and related tributaries into the San Francisco Bay Delta instead of being diverted by pumps to Central Valley farms and Southern Californian cities. The contemptuous conflation was the most quoted part of an 134-page finding in the on-going Consolidated Salmonid Cases, which concluded by intimating that pumping restrictions in place to protect migrating Delta smelt, Chinook salmon, steelhead trout and green sturgeon would soon be relaxed.

Unsurprisingly, the Contra Costa Times and other news outlets report today that pumping restrictions were indeed loosened. Decried by environmentalists and praised by water exporters, the most recent ruling is a temporary call in a game that is far from over.  As this battle for California’s fresh water continues, it seems likely if not inevitable that the federal biologists will be required to revisit their opinions.

At a guess, the migratory path of the salmonid cases is bound for an appellate court, even the Supreme Court. Among the ideas being tested is the notion that protections for these fish under the Endangered Species Act must not come at undue expense to humans, even at the expense of the very humans whose activities are imperiling the fish.

If that sounds unfair, almost nothing about water in California is fair. The incredible part to this observer is that among the humans seen in need of immediate relief by the Wanger court are Southern Californians.

Even those appalled by the May 18 Wanger finding have to hand it to the other side; a tip of the hat is due to lawyers who can convince a judge that a region famous for its lawns and swimming pools is as desperate for water as the collapsing populations of Delta fish covered by the Endangered Species Act.

Yet the attorneys representing the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California may have escaped credit for their magic because Met is not the lead plaintiff in the case. Most prominently reported among the aggrieved would be the Westlands Water District.

While allowing Westlands to take the limelight, Met has long been party to the suits challenging the opinions of federal biologists calling for more water to be left in the Delta to protect fish. Met’s clout should never be underestimated. Outside of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, Met is the largest water wholesaler in the country, the provider to 26 municipalities from Ventura to San Diego, or roughly 20 million people.

Several weeks ago, I asked Met’s general manager, Jeff Kightlinger, why Southern California is using its collective might to strip Delta fish of protection, particularly salmon and the orcas that depend on them? Aren’t we the region of “Free Willy,” not starve Willy?

Ah, said Kightlinger, he was glad that I asked that question. As he sees it, the problem isn’t the quantity of water in the Delta, it’s quality. “Flow is a factor,” he said, “but it’s not a major one.” As Met sees it, pollution from a major northern Californian waste water treatment plant, shipping port and farms are the chief culprits in failing fish populations, along with invasive species.

Met takes the impact of discharges of the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District so seriously that after an ammonium theorist was sacked last week from a scientific committee charged with reviewing Delta fish protections, a former Met employee quit the same panel in protest.

“I don’t think we’re solving this by throwing the water at it,” Kightlinger said a week earlier. Instead, under the federal fish protections, as he sees it, agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service “take away our water because they want to use it as a dilutant, while  leaving other people to dump pollutants in unchecked.”

He has a point, a politically unpopular point, but a valid one all the same. What he did not say, however, and what the Wanger court did not address, is that we in Southern California need the water withheld from the fish for exactly the same reason.

The Wanger decision noted that since pumping restrictions came into effect, Southern California’s reservoirs and collective storage facilities are down to 1.3m acre feet, or are at half capacity. That’s scary for lots of reasons, not least of which is that for every foot that elevations fall in the region’s storage reservoirs, trace amounts of chemicals from Chromium VI to Prozac to digitalis — just about everything discharged into water — become all the more concentrated.

In other words, dilution is the answer to pollution in both Northern and Southern California. For example, without dilution, without fresh supplies for blending, it’s not wild to suggest that if the Chromium VI concentrations recommended by California were ever made law, we’d see sudden and aggressive conservation drives to keep our reservoirs full.

This begs the question: Why aren’t we in Southern California willing to throw water at pollution in the Delta, to do for smelt, trout, salmon what we know is good for us?

Until recently, Met estimated that as much as half of the water delivered to Southern California went to outdoor use. Of that, Met also estimated that half, or as much as a quarter of the region’s water supply, was lost to run-off from crudely automated lawn irrigation and practices such as car washing and pavement sweeping with hose water instead of a broom.

While that percentage has dropped in the last year, with Southern Californian cities recording from ten to twenty per cent conservation rates, there is still a lot of waste. By back of the matchbook math, as much as 800,000 acre feet of water still go to the gutter every year. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly three times the total water budget of Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, back in Fresno, an expert witness before the Wanger court estimated that losses to the Southern Californian water supply because of Delta fish protections in 2010 were roughly 350,000 acre feet between late January and late March, with far less withheld in April and May. That leaves a lot of slack for us to adjust our sprinklers before kissing goodbye to Chinook salmon and Willy.

Much has been made of last year’s lawn watering restrictions in Southern California, but even at their inconsistent peak, there was nary a brown lawn in Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Hancock Park or Pasadena. Rather, home after home, the lawns were a tragic and wholly unnatural spring green in August while the gutters ranneth over.

I, for one, am never prouder to be a Southern Californian than when Met sics its legal department on polluters, whether Kightlinger’s staff is facing down PG&E to keep Chromium VI from Topock gas compressor discharges out of the Colorado River, or waging a full court press on the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District to deal with its ammonia discharges into the Delta. Go Met! Go Jeff!

But when the Met board approves nearly $4m in legal fees to fight Delta fish protections on the grounds that dilution is not the solution to pollution, then I for one want to know why that money isn’t going to conservation programs? “Four million dollars could buy a lot of low-flow toilets,” remarked one prominent conservationist who I interviewed, and who requested anonymity.

As I rang off with Kightlinger week before last, it was hard to fault him. He is no bad guy, unless by some bizarre modern yardstick it is bad guys who fight tooth and nail for water security and quality for 20 million people. Rather, I was left with the implicit impression from any conversation with any western water manager:  His or her job is to keep pipes full with potable water.  It is not his or her job to set the moral leadership for the region and state.

That’s our job and the jobs of the politicians who we elect. It’s election season. Let’s see who offers us a plan that hammers polluters and promotes conservation. Then let’s vote for them.

*This post was updated May 26, 2010 at 2.39pm.

This will be my last posting about the Consolidated Salmonid Cases. A family relationship with someone who is potentially, though not yet, involved with the suits makes any further coverage inappropriate.


One Response to “The consolidated salmonid cases and us”

  1. George
    May 26th, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    Speaking of a SoCal region famous for its lawns and swimming pools, let’s not imagine that as solely an urban metropolitan luxury. Many of the desert communities in SoCal I’ve visited have amazing numbers of them, thanks to the Colorado River and groundwater pumping.

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