California’s long, wet rainy season is nearly over. Our abundant snow pack is melting. Our rivers are full and even overflowing and the Bureau of Reclamation announced its initial water allocations for federal water users.
Most of the Central Valley Project’s farm and urban water contractors will receive 100 percent of their contract amount with the federal government. The most junior South of Delta federal water contractors are projected to receive 65 percent of their contract amount and that allocation will likely increase in coming months.
But there is another user that will not receive full water supplies – Central Valley wetlands. More than 90 percent of the Central Valley’s historic wetlands are gone. Our waterfowl populations have fallen from 40 million historically to 5 million today. Even at this diminished level, the Valley is one of the most important places in America for ducks, geese and other migratory waterbirds.
In Kern County, the Kern Wildlife Refuge is a key component of the areas that attract migratory waterfowl. These wetlands provide important habitat for these species with just 3 percent of California’s water supply. Surely that’s worth it.
This year, the federal government announced an allocation of 100 percent of the minimum water supply for wetlands but this is far short of the full water contracts for our wetlands. The Bureau of Reclamation has an obligation to purchase or develop additional water supplies to meet the full needs of the Valley’s few remaining wetlands.
It is not clear yet how close the Bureau will get this fall to delivering full water supplies when wetlands need water most. In recent years, federal agencies have provided an average of only 32 percent of this critical water for south of Delta refuges. Unfortunately, this shortage of water for Valley wetlands is often overlooked.
To create critical habitat, hunting opportunities, and more, Central Valley wetlands are highly managed and irrigated, much like farmland. So when wetland water managers get only 32 percent of a key supply, it matters. This shortage reduces spring and summer habitat for ducks that breed here. It reduces the amount of food from wetlands plants that feed migratory birds in the fall. It increases the risk of overcrowding and disease.
Like Valley farmers, duck hunters and wetland managers need water supplies to manage their lands to support wildlife and recreational opportunities. However, in the last 25 years, the Bureau has not once delivered all of the water owed to wetlands. The truth is that the Valley’s two large water projects, the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, have never delivered 100 percent of their combined water obligations in a single year.
Why is that? First, these projects deliver junior water rights. In addition, statewide, the State Water Board has issued water rights that total five times average runoff. So, even in wet years, California struggles to provide full supplies for everyone.
This winter, for example, there has been plenty of water in the Delta to pump for farmers and wetlands south of the Delta. But south of Delta storage is full – leaving nowhere to hold additional water and limiting pumping through the Delta. This limitation, not fish protections, reduced the water moving south.
This is a problem we can solve. In fact, there are many creative solutions that allow us to better use and keep water for south of Delta wetlands and farmers. We should consider expanding groundwater storage in our declining aquifers. The current use of water storage ponds along Allen Road and the Kern River Bike Path attests to our goal of recharging a much depleted groundwater aquifer.
Last summer, the Bureau, agricultural water agencies and wetland managers announced another win-win project – an agreement to purchase treated wastewater from cities on the east side of the Valley for farms and wetlands on the west side through the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program.
The Central Valley isn’t only the nation’s breadbasket. It is also the most important winter stopping point for waterfowl in the American West. We can, and must, find ways to preserve both the Valley’s rich wetlands and agricultural heritage.