Federal rules issued last week could further limit the state’s scarce water supply to protect an endangered fish unique to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Local water officials say the new restrictions — issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in response to the declining population of a tiny fish called the Delta smelt — aren’t likely to have a major impact on their water supplies. But they add to the increasing uncertainty farmers must deal with.
The restrictions themselves, which cut the amount of water the state is allowed to pump during times of year when the tiny fish are spawning, are basically in line with similar restrictions imposed last year.
But under certain hydrologic conditions in the driest of years, those restrictions could double. The state Department of Water Resources said last week that out of 80 years of past records, about 20 percent would have received the strictest cutbacks.
Still, the mere possibility that the cuts could be that drastic is unsettling for water officials and farmers alike.
“We’re going into every year with high uncertainty about how much water people will have,” said Lester Snow, DWR director. “It significantly affects the agricultural community trying to plan crops for the year.”
The Delta restrictions, along with the current drought, are creating what Del Puerto Water District general manager Bill Harrison calls “a perfect storm” for local farmers.
“We’re on the edge here,” Harrison said. “We really are on the edge.”
Harrison said the district, which serves about 45,000 acres of farmland between Vernalis and Santa Nella and gets all its water from the Delta, received about 40 percent of its contracted water supply this year.
With the drought continuing and new restrictions being imposed, he anticipates that when the first announcement of supply is made in early February, the district’s supply could drop to 10 percent or less. Harrison said the lowest he’s seen was a 25 percent year during the drought of the early 1990s.
Dwindling supply is especially tough on farmers who have been forced to switch from row crops to more lucrative, permanent orchards to generate enough revenue to pay for water. Those farmers don’t have the option of letting land go fallow when water supplies are low, leaving them stuck with trees they can’t properly care for.
But the drought, as bad as it is, wouldn’t be as significant a setback without the added effect of the Delta pumping restrictions.
“We’re a long ways from being out of the woods in terms of rainfall,” Harrison said. “But we’re getting deeper into the woods in terms of regulatory restrictions.”
Last year, biologists feared the inevitable extinction of the once-abundant smelt, but they believe last week’s federal ruling could prevent that.
An emergency ruling last year forced state and federal pumps to process one-third less water to protect the fish, whose plight many scientists believe reflects the overall health of the Delta.
The federal report released last week will make that ruling permanent and will introduce the possibility of even sharper cuts.
“It’s only marginally, incrementally worse than the restrictions we have been living under, but it’s like one more notch in the ratchet,” Harrison said. “It gets incrementally worse every time a decision is made, and there’s no relief in sight.”
Reporter Jennifer Wadsworth contributed to this report.