One Reason a Delta Solution is So Elusive

(Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, August 18, in the 159th year of California’s water wars, amid the dust of a three-year drought, the first of three special hearings by the Senate and Assembly’s water committees is scheduled.

The purpose is to find areas of accord between the myriad water interests, which include farmers, environmentalists, irrigation districts, cities, counties, utilities, the federal government, the state and Native Americans. The committees will also face the fundamental fact about California’s water – 75 percent of it is north of the Tehachapi; 75 percent of the users lie to the south.

There is a reason water, like health care, is such a vexing issue – it touches everyone and usually each affected party’s interests are antithetical to at least another affected party.

What possible areas of agreement that can be found will be hashed out in the final weeks of the legislative session by an Assembly/Senate conference committee, which usually has three members from each house. 

As testimony to the complexity of just one of the challenges facing lawmakers — finding balance, protection and, hopefully, sustainability for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – California’s Capitol submits the following letter written by Ronald Milligan, operations manager for the (federal) Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley office.

 The chief correspondent offers, as an introduction, a brief synopsis of the letter’s key points.)


Vernalis is a tiny San Joaquin county town at the intersection of Highway 33 and Highway 132, east of Tracy and 14 miles west of Modesto.

The Vernalis flow objective is part of the Vernalis Adaptive Management Plan, which the acronym-happy federal government refers to as VAMP. It is basically a 10-year test, set for re-evaluation next year, to see if greater flows in the San Joaquin River — and its tributaries in Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties — can be used to help increase the number of young Chinook salmon.

For salmon, the higher flows need to happen between February and June with the big months generally being April and May.

The flow objective – the amount of additional water that should be sent down the river to help the salmon and steelhead – was arrived it through the efforts of, among others, the entities cited in Paragraph Two.  

Next there is some throat clearing and offering of grim statistics that say, in essence, California is in the midst of a record-setting three-year drought.

“The hydrologic condition of the San Joaquin watershed, as defined by the San Joaquin River Basin Index, is classified as “dry,” Milligan notes. These drought conditions require a flow of 2,100 cubic-feet-per-second to meet the June objective — a much higher level than required in May.

Milligan catalogues why the bureau can’t reach that flow objective. It did manage, however, to increase releases from the Stanislaus River to 1,250 cubic-feet-per-second.

But in the next paragraph, things get worse, largely because the bureau checks in with its fellow federal agencies.

(Editor’s Note: Milligan’s paragraph begins with the phrase: “Now recently.” That isn’t possible. It’s either one or the other.)

The National Marine Fisheries Service says increased flow on the Stanislaus will actually hurt young salmon and steelhead, the very fish the Vernalis flow objective is supposed to help. Both the Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service say high flows could blast young fish into “inhospitable environments downstream.”

Enter the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Increasing releases from Goodwin Dam on the Stanislaus River above 700 cubic-feet-per-second endangers the “safety of river rafting and recreationalists.”

In response, the bureau lowers the release to the army corps level on the weekends then cranks it back to 1,250 on weekdays.

In conclusion, Milligan tells the state, the Vernalis flow will average about 1,250 – almost half less than the June objective.

(Editor’s Note: Recapping — in one brief letter, a handful of federal agencies present a several-pronged Hobson’s Choice. If a particular action is taken to help one species, it does greater harm to another. Or drowns rafters. There are nearly 300 state, local and federal agencies that hold some sway over the Delta’s future.)

Delta Letter


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1 Comment »

  1. Didn’t you mean to say that “75% of the water is in the north and the other 75% is in the south?”

    Comment by Yogi Berra — 8.18.2009 @ 8:58 am

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