Delta on the brink, panelists warn

Times Staff Writer

A congressional panel warned Monday that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the state’s key crossroads for water exports to Southern California, teeters on the verge of crisis.

The panel, consisting of Democrats on the House Natural Resource Subcommittee on Water and Power, also called for swift action to address ecological problems plaguing the delta.

Several of the representatives criticized state and federal water managers for failing to better protect the fragile estuary’s most imperiled resident, the delta smelt, a tiny fish at risk of being swallowed by the giant aqueduct pumps that send water south.

Some subcommittee members also questioned whether Bush administration officials pressured federal water managers and scientists to boost water deliveries at the expense of the delta ecosystem.


With the smelt in jeopardy and numerous other fish species struggling, the delta is on the brink of an outright collapse that could threaten water deliveries throughout the state, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said. “The delta cannot continue to give and give and give and give.”

During a three-hour hearing at Vallejo City Hall, not far from San Francisco Bay, Miller and other lawmakers warned of a coming era of limits for the delta -- and painful choices that almost certainly will have to be made.

In particular, they suggested, decisions could be forced on California agribusiness, with some water-intensive, less-pricey crops fallowed to ensure adequate water supplies for homes, businesses and the state’s more profitable agricultural commodities.

Miller singled out cotton grown in the southern San Joaquin Valley as a potential target, saying that in the water wars of the West, it’s “like the SUVs of the energy crisis.”

Agriculture leaders balked at the idea.

Jim Crettol, a Shafter farmer testifying before the panel, noted that heavily irrigated crops like alfalfa might seem a bad choice compared to less-thirsty commodities like wheat, but “cows need alfalfa and people need milk.”

He and others raised the possibility of building the peripheral canal, the long-debated aqueduct designed to skirt river water around the delta to state aqueducts for export south. That would eliminate the delta pumps that have long threatened the smelt’s survival.

But several of the congressional panelists rejected the idea, siding with environmentalists who say the peripheral canal would cause further deterioration of delta water quality, allow bay salt water to intrude and virtually shut down delta farming and sportfishing.


Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk), chairwoman of the subcommittee, called on state and federal agencies to work more cohesively to resolve what she called a burgeoning crisis.

Napolitano said that with drought looming, climate change posing a long-range risk and the federal courts increasingly weighing in, management of the state water system “is in disarray.”

State and federal officials didn’t disagree.

“This summer has been difficult,” said Ryan Broderick, director of California’s Department of Fish and Game.


To help the smelt survive, Broderick noted, the state made “nearly unprecedented reductions” in the amount of water it pumped into the California Aqueduct in late spring. For more than a week in early June, the state shut down exports to let the smelt -- a notoriously poor swimmer that can’t escape the pull of the pumps -- flee to colder waters near San Francisco Bay.

Despite those efforts, the past weekend saw more than 700 smelt taken by the pumps, prompting environmentalists to warn that the fish remains endangered.

None of the Republicans on the subcommittee attended the meeting, and Napolitano said they criticized the session as a “dog-and-pony show.”

Miller and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) pressed a U.S. Fish and Wildlife official about his experiences with Bush administration officials.


Steve Thompson, manager of Fish and Wildlife’s Sacramento office, said he did not feel any undue pressure from administration officials. He acknowledged that a Bush appointee -- Julie MacDonald, then a top Interior Department official -- showed “interest on a regular basis” regarding the smelt and California water operations.

He declined to go into detail, citing an ongoing federal investigation of MacDonald, who resigned earlier this year amid allegations that she bullied field biologists who were dealing with endangered species.

Thompson, who is not related to the congressman, said after the hearing that he has queried biologists under his supervision and is confident that “we got it right on the delta smelt.”