A chorus of Republicans and moderate Democrats in the San Joaquin Valley has called for the Newsom administration to ease pumping restrictions and export more water to drought-stricken regions of the state. For two weeks a surge of floodwater flowed nearly unimpeded through the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta and into the bay. It was another missed opportunity to seize on a wet year to export and store more water, argued the lawmakers.

Climate extremes and a lack of preparation underline the challenge. But the fault lies with an inflexible process for updating the pumping permits rather than on water managers, according to a group of irrigation districts and water agencies with contracts for the exports. This week the same regulatory inertia put up another obstacle in the way of Delta pumping.

“With these excess flows, we could turn on the pumps and get water out to the vital Central Valley, which is struggling right now,” said Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher, during a press conference last week. “Communities are lacking drinking water.”

The first to request the governor “relax the unnecessary pumping restrictions” were Democratic Senators Melissa Hurtado and Jasmeet Bains, whose districts touch Bakersfield. While the governor announced new state spending cuts last Tuesday, the lawmakers pointed out that water has been flooding into the Delta. The flow out to the ocean has reached about 150,000 cubic feet-per-second (cfs), while exports to water contractors were running at just 3,000 cfs. They took issue with a comment the prior week from Department of Water Resources (DWR) Director Karla Nemeth on “dialing back the pumps” to protect fish.

In response, Molly White, who manages State Water Project (SWP) operations at DWR, said the water projects are “maximizing our pumping as allowed to the extent of our state and federal permits. Last Wednesday, California’s Republican congressional delegation followed suit, pointing out that rainfall has been 600% of average in some places.

“Government regulations should not and must not deny our constituents critical water from these storms,” they wrote in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden.

The first Democrat in federal office to push for more water exports, Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno escalated the call to relax pumping restrictions on Thursday.

Costa sent a letter to Newsom, Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland arguing this would have little impact on endangered species. He said the state should not continue with a calendar-based approach and called for more adaptive strategies to improve drought resilience, reasoning a more robust water supply would benefit endangered species and agriculture alike while bolstering Newsom’s Water Supply Strategy.

Jennifer PierreState Water Contractors GM Jennifer Pierre

“It makes NO sense to miss the opportunity,” he wrote.

On the same day, GOP Asm. Vince Fong of Bakersfield sent a letter to Newsom blaming the administration’s interim operations plan and an incidental take permit that had replaced Trump-era biological opinions governing Delta flows.

“Swift action must be taken as quickly as possible to increase the amount of water moving through the state’s water conveyance system,” wrote Fong.

State and federal agencies, however, had already begun increasing Delta pumping by the time the letter landed on Newsom’s desk. On Monday the pumps were running at about half capacity. Yet as dry weather set in this week, river flows into the Delta were already beginning to subside.

The issue at the heart of the political drama is a regulatory rule known as the “first flush” that is triggered during flood flows. It provides endangered fish like the Delta smelt two weeks of reduced pumping at the onset of the first major winter storm, with the current window ending on Monday this week.

By the time storms arrive, smelt have congregated around the pumps at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. Turning on the massive intakes to capture the initial flood flows would also draw in the smelt and potentially kill the vulnerable fish. The regulatory practice of first flush gives time for those powerful flows to push the smelt further into the Delta and safely away from the pumps. When the next storm hits, usually a week or two later, pumping can accelerate.

“We want that to happen,” State Water Contractors General Manager Jennifer Pierre told Agri-Pulse. “It's very frustrating, of course, to see 100,000 cfs moving under the Golden Gate Bridge and you're only pumping 4,000.”

Yet the permit rules did not consider a weather event like California experienced this month, with a series of at least nine storms delivering a year’s worth of precipitation in just a few weeks. By the time meteorologists projected the extent of the storms, water agencies were unable to pivot their regulations in time, which would have entailed a detailed risk assessment, amendments to the permits and then implementing the new actions, explained Pierre. It served as another costly lesson for water management in an era when a rapidly changing climate has been upending the traditional paradigm.

“In our new permits, we need to make sure that we are giving ourselves the elbow room we need to be more flexible, in light of what will always most likely be unprecedented hydrology,” said Pierre.

Agencies could instead formulate the annual permits to incorporate more data that would in turn support more flexible operations. Pierre hopes when the first flush situation returns, state and federal wildlife agencies will increase their monitoring for smelt to see if the fish move away from the pumps earlier than the two-week mandate. But violating the existing permits to ease pumping restrictions this year would have set a bad precedent, she argued.

“That's not how we're going to do business,” she said.

This week attention quickly shifted to a separate pumping restriction known as a turbidity bridge. Smelt follow turbid, or cloudy, waters, since they provide shelter from predators, such as nonnative bass, according to the California Farm Water Coalition. The Delta has been highly turbid lately—along with deliveries to water contractors—as inflow washes sediment and debris down from river systems. Smelt tend to follow the plume, referred to as a bridge, to the south end of the Delta toward the pumps. Regulatory rules dictate agencies reduce their pumping whenever the bridge forms.

In a Monday press briefing, Molly White announced DWR had extended the reduced pumping action another five days to account for the turbidity bridge. SWP pumps were running at just 4,500 cfs. The state plans to reach full capacity by the end of the week, at around 9,500 cfs, though that will be several days after the last major storm has left California. According to White’s estimates, the state and federal projects combined were pumping at a rate of about 8,500 cfs on Monday and could ramp up to 13,000 cfs, depending on inflow.

In comparison, the State Water Project alone was pumping at a rate exceeding 10,000 cfs in 2017—a record wet year, when water managers blamed a deluge of inflow for the destruction of Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway.

Pierre has been scrambling to find an offramp for the turbidity bridge rule. As with a first flush, a more intense monitoring of smelt could show that no fish are on the bridge, freeing pumps to power up.

“That's really where we need to be focused right now, despite all these letters,” said Pierre, though she acknowledged the political pressure, while misdirected, has likely had some degree of influence on pumping operations.

With so much attention on the Delta, the Newsom administration has been highlighting its downsized tunnel proposal, which would move more water from northern rivers through the Delta. When Newsom took office in 2019, one of his first actions as governor was in response to environmental outcry over a controversial plan for two tunnels. He dropped the proposal to a single tunnel, sending it back to the draft board to restart the regulatory process. The revised plan would add 6,000 cfs of pumping capacity to Delta operations and is currently undergoing an environmental review with the Army Corps of Engineers. It would cost at least $16 billion and not be built until at least 2028.

The administration has championed the new proposal as a solution to the risks of sea level rise and earthquakes for the existing pumps and to capture more water from extreme weather events.

DWR’s Molly White calculated the tunnel would have been able to capture an additional 131,000 acre-feet of water during the first two weeks of January, if it were in place.

“It would be extremely valuable,” said White. “It would allow us the flexibility to capture more of the storm flows, while continuing to meet protections for fisheries and water quality.”

If the existing pumps were functioning at full capacity, another 84,000 acre-feet of water could have been exported this month, enough to irrigate 25,000 acres, according to Greg Gartrell, an adjunct fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. This would have helped to fill San Luis Reservoir, the largest reservoir south of the Delta. But Gartrell suspects inflows to the Delta will remain high and San Luis will eventually fill regardless.

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