By Carolyn Lochhead
WASHINGTON — First came the urgent e-mail to two Cabinet secretaries from San Joaquin Valley farm interests, demanding that officials allow “maximum pumping” of water from recent storms for agriculture and cities and minimize flows for endangered fish making their river migrations amid the worst drought in years.
Two days later, on March 25, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein allied herself with the same Central Valley House Republicans she had criticized just weeks earlier for trying to override endangered species laws. In an urgent letter to the Cabinet secretaries, Feinstein and the Republicans echoed the farming groups, calling for capturing “the maximum amount of water from this week’s storm.”
By April 2, state and federal water officials said they had temporarily “adjusted” environmental rules to divert water from the season’s last rains to reservoirs and away from rivers where endangered Chinook salmon, steelhead trout and other fish are migrating. On Wednesday, they said they would keep the changes in place through June.
”If this is done the wrong way, they can kill the salmon, they can damage delta communities’ drinking water, and it doesn’t solve anything at the other end,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, a St. Helena Democrat who has battled Feinstein on salmon protections. “It just throws a little water on it.”
Feinstein sits on the Appropriations Committee, which funds the agencies that she lobbied last month. She said the survival of farms that help feed the country and form the economic backbone of the San Joaquin Valley were at stake.
”I have lived in California all my life and never have I seen drier conditions,” Feinstein said in a written response to questions about her actions. “At least a half-million acres are being fallowed, drinking water is endangered and countless jobs are at risk. For months I have been advocating that federal agencies use whatever flexibilities are available to them to pump as much water as they can within the law and human health and safety requirements, and I continue to stand by that position.”
Feinstein’s letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, whose agencies are responsible for protecting fish, was joined by the Republican House members backing drought legislation that would override the Endangered Species Act. Fresno Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, who voted for the Republican bill when it passed the House in February, also signed the letter.
The lawmakers said there was “significant leeway” to capture rainwater “without risking jeopardy to protected species. … You have the authority under the law, and we assert, the obligation, to immediately take advantage of the rare, and likely the last, opportunity this year to capture and move water to bring relief to millions of Californians.”
The agencies responsible for water management, including enforcing Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act protections, say the water diversions will not harm wildlife.
Asked whether the Feinstein letter had any effect on agency decisions, Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said lawmakers were “keenly interested” in pumping levels during the drought. “We continue to try to communicate with them regarding the decisions we’re making,” he said.
Officials said they are using flexibility built into rules protecting endangered fish.
”I would not use the word ‘relax,’ ” said Chartlon Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “What we are doing is finding maximum flexibility in existing law and trying to balance multiple needs in a third dry year.”
Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, which oversees salmon protections, acknowledged that there are “adverse effects that are happening to fish throughout the Central Valley region due to drought, and it’s very hard to fully minimize all those effects.”
But she said her agency conducted an “extensive biological review” and that she is “confident that we’ve used all the best available information to support the decision.”
The reaction from environmental groups has been fierce. More than 40 groups warned of potential extinctions, with the water diversions coming at a time when migrating salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon, long fin smelt and delta smelt are already in dire straits from the drought.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the state could lose an entire year of fall-run Chinook salmon, which fuels California’s commercial and recreational fishing industries. The threat prompted emergency operations to truck millions of juvenile salmon at risk of dying in depleted streams and rivers closer to San Francisco Bay.
”It’s already an awful year for fish,” said Jon Rosenfeld, a fish biologist with the Bay Institute, an environmental group in San Francisco. “The fish are relying on freshwater flows down the rivers, through the delta and out.”
The extra pumping eliminates any rescue from the March rains and draws vulnerable fish inland instead of out to sea.
”Anything that might carry them on their journey and give them a little bit increased chance of reaching the ocean, that is, these fresh water pulses, we’re trying to intercept every one of them,” Rosenfeld said. “That’s a really bad way to manage half a dozen species that are threatened with extinction.”
The risk of political pressure influencing ad hoc decisions could be alleviated if the state had a contingency plan for droughts, said Michael Hanemann, a UC Berkeley water economist.
”In a better world, we would work out some sort of protocol for cutting back deliveries of water,” Hanemann said. “It’s a terrible thing to have to figure out a response to a drought in the middle of a drought.”