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published on August 21, 2019 - 1:25 PM
Written by David Castellon

For months, farmers across the Valley as well as people in many cities and unincorporated communities have anxiously awaited a federal report.

Under orders from President Donald Trump, the researchers have been looking at data related to a more than decade-old federal court order that two water pumping stations along tributaries of the Sacramento River near Tracy cut back on pumping water from the north down south, where much of that water would go to supply farms and communities.

 

Report delay

Despite a directive by Trump to have a report ready by June 1 stating whether federal biologists would support opening the pumps up more — which the administration advocates, none was released, with federal officials announcing more work on the study is being done.

Despite that claim, a report was ready but never released, said Jeff Ruch, Pacific region director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit service organization for local, state and federal environmental and public health employees.

Instead, after the report was submitted ahead of the deadline, he said 20 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers who conducted much of the research were reassigned, and the White House has put together over the past week a new research group to study the Delta pumping issue because the White House reportedly didn’t like the conclusions of the first report.

 

 

Salmon concerns

NOAA specifically looked at the potential effects from increased pumping on
salmon in the Pacific and those that migrate from the ocean inland to fresh water and newly bred salmon heading back to the ocean.

While PEER hadn’t obtained a copy of the unreleased report, Ruch said he had been told the researchers were concerned salmon could be adversely affected by increasing water pumping, which includes getting caught in the pumps and killed in large numbers and the reduction of water in the northern parts of the delta interfering with spawning and other matters important to their survival.

As for how PEER knows this, “They told us,” Ruch said of some of the affected biologists, noting his 20-year-old organization provides legal and other assistance to “embattled” biologists, rangers, analysts, attorneys and engineers.

 

‘Political pressure’

“Often, they are facing political pressure in their agencies to either do the wrong thing or ignore the right thing. So we do a lot of whistleblower work, for example.”

Ruch, careful to avoid saying which researchers PEER is representing, said the concern is that the White House is switching out the initial research team in favor of one more likely to favor a view that supports increasing pumping in the Delta.

The decision to decrease pump activity over the past decade stems from an environmental lawsuit seeking to keep more fresh water from Shasta Lake up north to maintain water levels to allow native fish and other animals — some threatened or endangered — to survive in the San Joaquin Delta, as well as to prevent some fish, particularly Delta smelt, from getting caught up in the pumps and killed.

 

Too much north

But many farmers and community leaders depending on Delta water have complained too much is staying up north and is wasted by letting it flow west into the ocean rather than being used to support communities and commerce, a debate that became particularly heated during California’s recent five straight drought years.

President Trump, looking to keep his promise to Valley farmers to direct more water south through the Delta, ordered the study to determine whether the latest data shows if Delta fish might not be significantly harmed if more water is pumped south.

Ruch said he didn’t know what the conclusions were by other federal researchers on the effects of increased pumping on Delta smelt, and recent postings online have argued that researchers are increasingly saying the threat to those fish are lower than previously thought.

 

Elusive smelt

Though University of California, Davis researchers couldn’t be reached to comment on this, Sergeant Green, a hydrologist and director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno, said there is research indicating smelt are increasingly gathering in the northern part of the Delta where the water is generally turbid — muddy and murky, allowing them to better hide from predators — away from the pumps.

“A huge amount of data in the Delta is being collected, but among the problems is finding Delta smelt is difficult, as they’re kind of elusive, still. So I think part of the argument and part of the problem is lack of sufficient data, Green said.

“There seems to be no meeting of the minds as to what they can do. I think one of the problems is that we’re trying to control things rather than managing them. If we were managing for Delta smelt — and we’re starting to do that, [as] they’ve set up a nursery to raise more Delta smelt — so if we managed better for Delta smelt rather than using controls, I think we would be better off.”

As for the president’s interest in increasing pumping in the Delta,

Green said Trump could order it, but that likely would be challenged in court, so scientific support of his action would help him.

On the other hand, he added, no matter what the opinion is, any action or lack of action that follows likely would be legally challenged.


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