Environmental rules stoke anger as California lets precious stormwater wash out to sea
Published in Science & Technology News
Environmental rules designed to protect imperiled fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have ignited anger among a group of bipartisan lawmakers, who say too much of California's stormwater is being washed out to sea instead of being pumped to reservoirs and aqueducts.
In a series of strongly worded letters, nearly a dozen legislators — many from drought-starved agriculture regions of the Central Valley — have implored state and federal officials to relax environmental pumping restrictions that are limiting the amount of water captured from the delta.
"When Mother Nature blesses us with rain, we need to save the water, instead of dumping it into the ocean," Assemblymember Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) wrote in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Since the beginning of January, a series of atmospheric rivers has disgorged trillions of gallons of much-needed moisture across drought-stricken California, but only a small fraction of that water has so far made it into storage. In the delta — the heart of the state's vast water system — nearly 95% of incoming water has flowed into the Pacific Ocean, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The calls by lawmakers have reignited a long-simmering debate over where — and to whom — the state's precious water supplies should go.
"With so much excess water in the system, there is no reason that exports south of the Delta cannot be increased," read another letter that State Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) and Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains (D-Bakersfield) addressed to Newsom.
But experts say it's not that simple.
While the delta provides drinking water for about 27 million Californians and supports the state's massive agricultural industry, it is also a delicate ecosystem that is home to threatened and endangered species — many of which have been suffering amid warming waters, increasing salinity, dangerously low flows and other ecological stressors. The tiny delta smelt are dangerously close to extinction.
State and federal water managers said they have been complying with environmental regulations designed to protect those species, including a so-called "first flush" protocol that mandates two weeks of reduced pumping at the onset of the first big winter storms.
The flush provides the fish with enough time and water to move away from the powerful pumps, which have been known to chew them up.
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