Delta pumps halted; If shutdown is long, agencies may order conservation or rationing

California water officials on Thursday halted water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta after rising numbers of a rare fish, the Delta smelt, were sucked to their deaths in the pumps.

Sacramento Bee – By Matt Weiser

California water officials on Thursday halted water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta after rising numbers of a rare fish, the Delta smelt, were sucked to their deaths in the pumps.

State Department of Water Resources officials said the action is expected to last seven to 10 days, until water conditions allow the fish to move to safer areas. Shortages are not expected for the 25 million Californians who get water from the Delta.

But if the shutdown lasts longer, some water agencies, mainly in the Bay Area, may have to impose mandatory conservation or rationing measures. Many have called on customers to adopt extra voluntary conservation steps amid what is already one of the driest years on record in the state.

“Nobody is going without water,” said DWR Director Lester Snow. “We will ramp up efforts for additional conservation. We want everybody to conserve water both because of this circumstance and the low snowpack this year.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also has shut down all but one of the six pumps at its separate, federal Delta water export facility, an unprecedented step.

“We have never been in the situation we are right now,” said bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken.

Bureau engineers are working to further cut the flow while still sending enough water downstream to keep Tracy from running dry. The city takes about half its supply from the bureau’s San Luis Canal.

This may be the first time state water exports have been halted to protect fish. The pumps were last silenced in 2004, and only for a couple of days, to protect water quality after a levee break in the Delta.

The latest shutdown came after a request from the state Department of Fish and Game, which also asked small water users in the south Delta to halt diversions. Fish and Game also suspended all scientific collection of smelt except for those needed to monitor the population.

The smelt is a translucent, minnow-like fish that has little commercial or recreational value. But it is a fragile fish that lives for only one year. It is extremely sensitive to water quality, so it is considered a strong indicator of the health of the entire Delta.

The smelt has been in a steep decline for three years, along with other species that share similar habitat, including striped bass, threadfin shad and longfin smelt. Biologists have been unable to explain the decline, but blame a combination of water exports, water contamination, and competition from wildlife not native to Delta waters.

The Delta is the hub of the state’s water system, channeling abundant snowmelt in the north to dry regions in the south. But that function is increasingly threatened by crumbling levees, poor habitat and climate change.

“This just kind of underscores what a difficult dynamic we have in the Delta,” said Fish and Game Director Ryan Broddrick.

“The long-term health of the state, from an environmental and economic standpoint, requires finding a more durable solution.”

The smelt are expected to move downstream to Suisun Bay — a safe distance from the pumps — when the water warms to 77 degrees. But tidal conditions and low runoff are combining to keep them deep in the estuary. It is unclear how long those conditions will last.

Politicians and biologists have struggled unsuccessfully for years to balance the competing needs of wildlife and water users, and it has become increasingly clear that a balance cannot be struck given how the Delta is used today.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed a panel of experts to figure out how to re-engineer the Delta to protect fish while it conveys water. The findings are more than a year away.

Water users and environmentalists separately praised the decision to cease pumping, but called for more action.

“This really highlights that the system is broken,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He called for equally strong measures to control water contamination and invasive species. “I believe we are at a crisis point. This really feels like a lot of things piling up and making it very difficult to move water in this state.”

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