Delta pumps raise controversy in the Valley
Article by Mark Grossi – The Fresno Bee
Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 | 10:19 PM
C-WIN’s executive director Carolee Krieger is quoted at the end of this article.
TRACY — A single water pump hums to the tune of a 25,000-horsepower motor, sucking nearly 500,000 gallons a minute through a pipe that could easily fit a Chevy pickup.
The federal government has five more vintage 1940s pumps just like it, working together to create a monstrous rush of water. About a mile away, the state has its own immense pumping operation.
They pull water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to irrigate farmland three times the size of Rhode Island and supply drinking water for 25 million people. A multibillion-dollar part of California’s economy is carried by these powerful pumps.
But this winter they have been destroying an elegant, 3-inch fish that smells like cucumber — a federally protected species, called delta smelt. Several pumps had to be shut down.
So are these huge pumps a savior or a villain?
At the moment, they’re simply the focus as authorities try to protect the dwindling smelt, which don’t live anywhere else on the planet.
Federally protected chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and green sturgeon also are suffering in the delta, the spectacular but declining intersection of California’s two longest rivers.
Scientists see many causes, including predator species, pollution, drought and discharge from city sewage treatment. Pumping is at the top of their list because it changes the flow of water in the delta.
The delta decline has triggered battles in backrooms, courtrooms, boardrooms and the legislative halls, involving dozens of interest groups and industries.
One example: Environmentalists want to conserve more water, further develop ground-water banking south of the delta and stop pumping billions of gallons of water for tainted farmland on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side.
Farmers say such a shutdown would cause widespread economic damage. They question the science behind the smelt protection.
Gov. Jerry Brown is pursuing a way to keep the pumps going. Last year, he announced support of a $14 billion bypass to protect nature and provide water by tapping the Sacramento River before it enters the delta and sending water south in large tunnels to the pumps.
This month, state water and wildlife leaders, lamenting the loss of delta smelt and other fish, said it’s time to make a change.
“The current approach is untenable: It too often puts our native and imperiled fish species in the West Coast’s largest estuary too close to the south delta pumps,” said Charlton H. Bonham, director of California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A debate about the tunnels continues over price, size, location, water supply and the all-important question of whether it would even help the delta.
Meanwhile, the pumps are caught in the middle of this argument.
Bunyanesque for a reason
At the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s pumps, operations manager Ronald Silva stands next to a squat, rounded 20-ton piece of the federal pumps, calling it an impeller.
A five-ton shaft and an electric motor spin it 180 times a minute to “impel,” or propel, a wave of water. In one hour, that electric motor uses as much electricity as your house would in 18 months.
The impeller sends water through a tube 15 feet in diameter on its way to the broad Delta-Mendota Canal, which can carry billions of gallons of water daily.
Most everything around the federal pumps is Bunyanesque, a testament to engineering marvels of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Engineer Lance Johnson, a longtime San Joaquin Valley expert in water issues, said the Tracy pumping plant was built during the Cold War and recognized as a strategic asset.
“News reports — framed and posted on the wall of the old operations room — stated that it was built to withstand a nuclear attack,” Johnson said.
Why are the pumps so big? They lift water about 20 stories high to get it into the Delta-Mendota Canal, which is one mile away.
“It’s a big job,” said operations manager Silva. “But these pumps do it well.”
The canal runs 117 miles south to the Mendota Pool in west Fresno County, which would be a long, uphill ride using additional pumps if not for insightful design.
The canal was excavated on a gentle downward slope. So even though west Fresno County is actually uphill from the delta, the canal runs downhill, making additional pumps unnecessary.
But pumping is required to get water from the canal into into San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County, which is a stop along the way to the Mendota Pool.
Many farm customers in the central San Joaquin Valley — including Westlands Water District, the largest water district in the nation — get federal water from San Luis.
Delta fish issues are followed with a fervor on the Valley’s west side, said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, representing many west-side water districts.
By early February, pumping restrictions had cost farms and cities nearly 750,000 acre-feet of water — 283,500 in federal pumping and 465,296 in state pumping, Nelson said. He added there is no possible way to scientifically measure the benefits of these reductions for the smelt.
The statewide cost of pumping cutbacks will be counted in the billions of dollars and thousands of lost farm jobs, Nelson said.
“We’ve already lost 15% of our allocation because of pumping restrictions,” said Nelson, who is based in Los Banos.
In Fresno County, farmer Dan Errotabere, a member of the Westlands Water District board, says he and other growers worry about the upcoming season.
He grows tomatoes, garlic, garbanzo beans and onions on 3,600 acres in Westlands. Some land probably will be left bare this year, depending on how much water he gets from the delta.
By late February in most years, the Bureau of Reclamation makes its initial water projection for Central Valley Project customers. Last year, which was drier, farmers were told to expect 30% of their contractual allotments.
This year, the Sierra snowpack is again below average. Nelson says the allotment may be as low as 20%. Errotabere says he doesn’t like to think about it.
“I’m afraid to even guess,” Errotabere says. “We will have to pump ground water.”
Rivers run backward
A wall shelf displays a line of dead fish in bottles filled with a clear solution. Name tags on the bottles include split tail, chinook salmon, threadfin shad, longfin smelt, common carp and others.
This is the federal Tracy Fish Collection Facility, a short drive from the federal pumps. Crews here sample the incoming water from the delta and identify the fish they find. On this day, a late morning sample found only one small fish.
“It’s a bluegill,” said Silva.
This season’s delta smelt problem surfaced here in mid-December after big storms flushed a slug of water through the delta. Pumping cutbacks began Dec. 17 and continue.
The rules protecting delta smelt allow 305 fish to be killed at the pumps in a water year, which ends Sept. 30. The count is already 232 — more than 75% of the limit.
If the limit is exceeded, tighter rules might be needed to manage water flow at the delta. And that might result in curtailments in water deliveries later this year, possibly at times when irrigation water is most needed.
Why such drastic measures? The big gulp coming from the pumps changes the natural flow, making some water reverse direction from its ocean-bound journey and go south toward the pumps.
Fish get pulled along, says biologist and smelt authority Peter Moyle, the University of California at Davis professor who filed the petition in 1990 to protect the fish.
Moyle says he does not know if the tunnels bypass will work. But he says there is little doubt the delta’s biggest problem is the unnatural way water is moving, and the pumps are at the heart of that problem.
“It’s the biggest single driver of the delta’s decline,” he says.
Environmentalists don’t like the bypass fix, saying it will cost far more money and water than advertised. Conserve water and turn down those pumps, they say.
Cutting off the salt-laden west Valley farmland is a no-brainer, says Carolee Krieger, president and executive director of the activist California Water Impact Network.
“The first order of business is to take the poisoned land out of production,” she said. “It saves water and it saves fish.