Striped bass are an introduced species in the Delta. It is a veracious predator of native fish. Modification of delta flows and restrictions on exports have been ineffective in protecting endangered fish from predation by striped bass. The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta is working on several fronts to implement more effective measures. (Illustration by CA Dept of Fish and Game

By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics

Farmers’ water rights have been under attack for decades now. The list of acronyms is daunting: CVPIA, SJRRP, Bay-Delta Accord, D-1641, 2008 BiOps, ITP, VAMP, and the list goes on. Each one of these acronyms represents a major regulatory decision that costs farmers in the San Joaquin Valley hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water. Frequently, regulators promise this is the last time that agricultural water supplies will be cut. But with every listed species and every state board plan, the cuts keep coming. Sometimes, the regulations reflect a defensible shift in resource policy — and sometimes not. The concern is that, too much of the time, the science behind the regulation is inadequate, and the initiative either will not provide the expected benefits or will have significant unintended consequences for farmers and farm workers.

Much of the water needed to maintain the level of agricultural production in the San Joaquin Valley comes through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. That water serves the State Water Project Contractors in Kern County, federal water contractors on the west side of the Valley, and by exchange, the whole of the Friant Division. But the Delta is highly regulated by a variety of state and federal agencies. In some cases, the science underlying the regulation is wanting. For instance, a recent set of regulations promoted more flows for delta smelt when a myriad of studies has shown that the delta smelt population is limited far more by a lack of food than a lack of flows. And regulations have been implemented to restrict pumping during spring to protect out-migrating salmon in the San Joaquin River, when salmon losses to predators are orders of magnitude higher than losses at the pumps.

Some farmers have had enough. For more than a decade, a group of farmers have invested in an organization known as the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta. A review of science achievements and challenges was presented at a recent meeting in Bakersfield on November 16. The Coalition was formed to hold regulators accountable for their bad regulations. That happens first by really digging into science to understand what is credible and what is not (doing the homework). That work has been conducted by a team of state and nationally renowned scientists under the auspices of the Center for California Water Policy and Management. Second, the Coalition works with regulators to implement better management actions, and if that fails, then there is a need to litigate. But without the threat of litigation (the big stick), it is easy for bureaucrats to ignore credible science and pursue their own agenda.

It is not easy to undo bad regulations once they have been implemented. Consider the “Fall X2” action. In order to continue water exports, albeit at a reduced level, water exporters had to provide additional flows in the fall for delta smelt in wetter than normal years. The original science underlying the decision was flawed – there were errors in statistical methodology that a reasonable review would have corrected. And despite more than a dozen subsequent studies showing no support for the action, it continues to be required by CDFW. The Coalition and its allies were successful in relaxing the action, saving around 150,000-acre feet of water per year on average. Bill Phillimore, the founder of the Coalition, estimates that it saves water users in Kern County around $45 million per year.

The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta is governed by a Board of Directors and funded by individual landowners. It can both lobby and litigate – actions that water districts cannot do or are unwilling to do. It continues to actively engage with state and federal agencies to protect water rights and water supplies. But if the organization is to continue to fulfill its purpose, the support must be broader. It is not reasonable or sustainable for a few landowners to protect the rights of the many. Small contributions from many create strength in numbers. The Coalition is managed by Brad Samuelson, and he would appreciate your support.

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