Federal Agency Releases New Approach for Dealing with California Water Operations

This week, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released a lengthy document outlining a new approach applying scientific principles to state operations affecting water supply and fishery protections.

The Biological Assessment document will guide two other federal agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service—in updating biological opinions put together a decade ago for the Delta smelt and salmon.

The handling of both fish species affects operations of two major water supply and flood protection systems in California—the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.

Outdated Assessments

Critics, including the California Farm Water Coalition, a statewide organization representing a cross-section of agriculture, have pointed out that the biological opinions currently used by the federal agencies have led to operational problems. Moreover, experts have concluded the biological opinions were ineffective at helping the endangered fish the opinions aimed to protect.

The outdated biological opinions often conflicted, requiring more water to be stored upstream to keep temperatures lower for salmon, while also requiring more water to be released into the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta to benefit the smelt.

Cooler temperatures allow salmon to reach spawning beds and juvenile salmon to migrate downstream to the ocean. Water flows into the Delta help control salinity, which harms the ecosystem, agriculture and the Delta smelt.

New Biological Assessment

The reclamation bureau’s new biological assessment creates a new process to modernize the operation and efficiency of the federal and state water projects, providing much-needed operational flexibility.

The changes to the federal Central Valley Project are based on experience with the older biological opinions, the drought and previous policy decisions.

The science-based operational changes will respond to actual conditions rather than following a calendar-based approach to protecting species. The changes will allow water regulators to provide better temperature control for salmon while reducing impacts on the Delta.

Flow requirements will be based on a variety of factors rather than using flow as the only criteria for water project management.

A key change: the new biological assessment moves away from the inaccurate presumption that water projects are the only cause of the decline in fish species.

The more integrated and holistic approach will enable federal and state agencies to use science and effective operational measures to address all the factors that are affecting fish populations.

In a news release, the reclamation bureau says its proposed actions aim to give water operators more flexibility, maximize water supply delivery and optimize power generation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service are expected to release new biological opinions by mid-June.

CalChamber Position

The reclamation bureau’s biological assessment will help support past and current calls by the California Chamber of Commerce and other groups in support of voluntary agreements among state and local water agencies, water districts, farmers, cities and other groups affecting water flows in the lower San Joaquin River.

The voluntary agreements are preferable to arbitrary flow requirements based on assumptions discredited by the new biological assessment.

Staff Contact: Valerie Nera