Central Valley Project Improvement Act Update
The controversy that began nine years ago when the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) was first introduced in Congress continues unabated today. The initial debate over the act itself was played out in Washington, D.C., against the backdrop of a multi-year California drought and the first changes in traditional CVP operations to protect the winter-run salmon.
Controversy did not end with the act’s passage in October 1992, days before the presidential election. Instead, it shifted to an intense disagreement over what the CVPIA really intended and how it should be implemented as competing stakeholders and Interior officials worked to interpret some of the ambiguous language in the act.
Today – as water users cast a wary eye at the weather - controversy over the CVPIA has heightened as Interior moves to implement three of the most contentious portions of the ambitious law: the annual allocation of 800,000 acre-feet of CVP yield to the environment, (the so-called b2 water); renewal of long-term water supply contracts; and the related action of increasing Trinity River flows.
That the full impact of these clauses is just now being felt can be credited in large part to the unprecedented cycle of wet years that followed the CVPIA’s enactment. But the delay also can be traced to administrative challenges, the law has required extensive planning and studies; politics, from an attempt at a legislative overhaul of the act to a stakeholder inclusive process to seek consensus; and litigation, in particular a 1997 lawsuit over the b2 water.
The act fundamentally changed operation of the CVP, which supplies 20 percent of the state’s developed water, by putting environmental mitigation, protection and restoration on equal footing with irrigation and urban water supply demands to benefit the Central Valley’s aquatic ecosystem and wetlands.
Since the CVPIA’s passage, numerous environmental restoration measures have been implemented. These include modification of federal CVP operations, increased water deliveries to wildlife refuges, and installation of fish screens and fish ladders on water diversions.
Yet such a shift in philosophy and water system operations does not come without impact to the traditional beneficiaries of the CVP – irrigators. The issue of greatest significance is the allocation of b2 water to the environment. Although it represents only 14 percent of the CVP’s total yield, the brunt of Interior’s new 800,000 acre-feet plan falls on CVP contractors south of the Delta. Under Interior’s new b2 plan, west side San Joaquin Valley farmers will receive only half their CVP supplies – even in wet years – while the Silicon Valley will see a 25 percent reduction in CVP supplies.
“The policy is not reliable or sustainable,” said Jason Peltier, manager of the CVP Water Association (CVPWA), which represents CVP users. “Interior should sit down with the contractors and come up with a rational, balanced method of accounting.”
“I don’t think it’s particularly fair that it mostly falls on Westlands,” said Cynthia Koehler, senior attorney at Save the Bay, “but that’s the reality of the water rights system. It is heretical to suggest it, but ‘first in time, first in right’ is not a sound approach to water management any more. It was a fine system in 1850. It’s a ridiculous approach in 2000. It actively promotes inefficiency and waste.”
Legal issues surrounding implementation of the b2 clause were argued in federal court for most of 1998. A ruling by Judge Oliver Wanger just before Christmas did not fully resolve those issues. While it appears at first glance that Wanger had upheld Interior’s position, a hearing with attorneys in January left many unanswered questions.
As drafted, Interior’s recent b2 plan relies on SWP cooperation to help implement the fish protection measures. Yet within days of the plan’s announcement, Gov. Davis warned Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt that the state may not cooperate. “The implementation [of the plan] cannot be accomplished without a high degree of coordination, cooperation and facilitation by the state,” Davis wrote in a Nov. 6 letter. “Unless and until adequate measures are developed to substantially mitigate the impacts of this plan, I cannot commit to facilitate the current plan as presented.”
In his response, Babbitt said Interior had no choice but to “adopt a more rigid accounting of ‘no more and no less’ than 800,000 acre-feet each year” because an earlier, more flexible plan had been rejected in federal court. “These issues demonstrate our mutual interdependence, the need to work together to fairly apportion the impact of these requirements, and the importance of implementing a long-term CALFED Program,” Babbitt wrote in a Dec. 9 letter.
Even as discussions between Davis and Babbitt continue, the state-federal tension has shifted to Delta operations and who - or what – caused water quality to deteriorate in December.
In late November, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) closed the Delta Cross Channel gates to keep threatened spring-run chinook salmon out of the interior Delta, which reduced fresh water flows to export pumps in the South Delta. CVP and State Water Project (SWP) pumping, however, remained at capacity as officials worked to fill San Luis Reservoir south of the Delta. By mid-December, the high exports and cross channel closure, combined with a lack of precipitation and high tides, resulted in the saltiest water at the export pumps since 1977 – a year of extreme drought.
Even after the pumps were slowed (in large part because of b2 provisions) and the Bureau reopened the Delta Cross Channel gates to let fresher water flow into the South Delta, it was too late. Contra Costa Water District was forced to draw from its Los Vaqueros Reservoir to avoid the salty water, and the supply at its Rock Slough diversion exceeded the drinking water salinity standard for one day.
By the end of December, the situation was resolved; the cross channel gates were open and CVP and SWP pumps resumed pumping at high levels. Storms had helped improve water quality. However, Department of Water Resources (DWR) officials estimate the one month cutback cost the SWP 180,000 acre-feet. Still a matter of dispute is whether the Bureau is required to make up any of that water and, if so, how.
This crisis is one example of what Walt Wadlow, assistant general manager of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, calls an “unforeseen consequence” of the CVPIA – less flexibility to operate the system. “The Bureau’s operations plan routinely targets the federal share of water stored south of the Delta at minimal levels. It shifts the burden to the SWP to maintain levels in San Luis Reservoir,” said Wadlow, whose district south of the Delta receives water from both projects. “I don’t think the state anticipated that result.”
In late January, a joint legislative hearing was convened by the state Senate’s Agriculture and Water Resources and Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife committees to discuss the water quality crisis. At the hearing, state legislators questioned federal and state officials on the developments in December while stakeholders took advantage of the opportunity to sound off on b2, and the Bureau’s projected water allocations.
Westlands farmer Chris Heard told legislators he will have to fallow 700 of the 2,100 acres he farms if the Bureau’s water allocation stands. “We do not have other surface or well water available,” he said. “My farm is not sustainable with a 40 percent supply.”
Countered Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA): “North coast salmon ports have had boats rotting in the slips for years because we have not had adequate water in the streams. The problem is not with the fish, with the Endangered Species Act, or the CVPIA, the problem is we have a water system that is over subscribed.”
This issue of Western Water provides an update on the CVPIA, with a particular focus on the issues surrounding the b2 water, contract renewals, Trinity River flows, and the link between the CVPIA and the CALFED Bay-Delta Program. Additional background information on the CVP and the CVPIA can be found in the Foundation’s Layperson’s Guide to the Central Valley Project and back issues of Western Water.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our products page and add the January/February 2000 Western Water to your shopping cart.
A unique book on water will soon be released. Four years in production and written by Sue McClurg, our chief writer, Water and the Shaping of California, chronicles the story of California’s water and the people of California.
This beautiful “coffee table” book began with a gift of photos of California water taken during the 1987-1992 drought by National Geographic photographer Rick Rickman. It grew into a book with both an extensive water photo and literary collection. The literature includes Wintu Indian tales, John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, Norris Hundley, Kevin Starr, Gary Snyder and many other prominent California writers. Sue put to work her years of covering water issues and information gathered through the Foundation’s water history program to produce a truly breathtaking book.
This water book follows the history of the precious resource from the Spanish settlement period, when the first mission in San Diego had to be moved to gain a more reliable water supply, through the Gold Rush and the subsequent ban on destructive hydraulic mining. It also follows the rise of irrigated agriculture and the growth of the projects that put water to work, eventually making the state the world’s seventh largest economy and producer of 50 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. The building of the great projects is portrayed along with the development of the conservation movement from John Muir’s Sierra Club to the environmental movement of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and its impact on the water scene.
Water and the Shaping of California explores the politics of water. The great fights between fish and water development interests, and the truce leading to today’s shaky consensus movement are discussed. Finally, the book summarizes the grassroots growth of today’s watershed movement.
But this is not a book just about the facts of water. It is about the soul of water and what it does to our hearts. It’s about the power of water and how it moves us; the beauty of water and how it gives us peace. Special thanks goes to the Hans and Margaret Doe Charitable Trust for providing a major portion of the book’s development funds and for their patience in letting us develop this book while continuing to cover the latest water issues in all our ongoing programs.
By May, Water and the Shaping of California will be finished. The paperback will be available at your local bookstore through the auspices of our co-publisher, Heyday Books, as well as the Foundation. A collector’s style limited hardbound version will be available only from the Foundation. Contact us today to place your order for Water and the Shaping of California.
In the News
Salton Sea Salvation?
With great fanfare, top Interior officials in January unveiled a list of options to save the Salton Sea, a vast, saline lake located in California’s remote southeastern corner. “The sea is an important natural resource for people and wildlife alike, and we must act to save it,” Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in announcing results of the 18-month, congressionally mandated study.
The Salton Sea – formed by the joint forces of man and nature 95 years ago – has no natural outlet. Already 25 percent saltier than the ocean, its salt level increases daily through the natural evaporation/concentration process. If nothing is done, researchers predict the sea will grow too salty for many of the sport fish. The demise of these fish, in turn, could impact the hundreds of thousands of fish-eating birds that depend on the sea for habitat. The Salton Sea region is home to some 400 species of birds and is an important stop on the Pacific Flyway.
The overall goal is to extract some 9.4 million tons of salt annually, reducing the sea’s salinity concentration from 44,000 to 35,000 parts per million. The draft Environmental Impact Study/Report (EIS/EIR) released in mid-January, along with a strategic science plan, included five alternative approaches to reducing the sea’s salinity, along with a “no-action” option. (A 90-day public comment period will begin when the full draft EIS/EIR is released. It will be available at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River Basin web site, http://www.lc.usbr.gov. A final EIR/EIS due later this year will select one of the five options.)
Elements common to each alternative include a fish harvesting program to reduce the tilapia population; a shoreline cleanup program to remove dead fish and other debris; and an integrated wildlife disease study to improve monitoring and prevention of bird and fish die-offs. As work continues on identifying a preferred alternative, pilot projects for these programs will be launched within the next few months. “We’re transitioning from talking about the Salton Sea’s problems to actually doing something about the sea’s problems,” said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority.
The alternatives differ in their approach to reducing salinity, creating, in effect, an artificial outlet for the sea by diking off portions of the sea, allowing some areas to grow saltier; accelerating the evaporation/salt concentration process by pumping water out of the sea and spraying it into the air; or combinations of the two. Cost estimates for the alternatives range from $319 to $542 million.
Complicating the effort to resolve the sea’s complex problems is the fact that the sea’s greatest source of inflow — agricultural runoff from farms in Imperial and Coachella valleys — will be reduced in the years to come as California implements the 4.4 Plan. The core component of that plan is the conservation of water in Imperial Irrigation District for transfer to San Diego. (Other sources of inflow are storm runoff and wastewater discharges from Mexico and California.)
To compensate for this loss of “fresh” water, four of the options call for tapping the Colorado River in flood years if inflow decreases to certain levels. With California already under pressure to reduce its take on the river, this idea will face great scrutiny by the six other Colorado River basin states.
Such periodic inflows would provide only marginal benefits, according to Jason Morrison, senior associate at the Pacific Institute. “It doesn’t seem to warrant the political storm it would cause with the other basin states,” he said.
One big question is how to pay for the ultimate solution. While Congress provided some $21 million for EIR/EIS and pilot projects, it remains to be seen how much federal money will be available — as well as what state or local government match will be needed — to implement the preferred alternative.