New Biological Assessment Released

In an effort to modernize operations of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP), the United States Bureau of Reclamation just released a new biological assessment. The assessment provides an important part of an overall solution to the environmental challenges facing the Delta and the lack of recovery for endangered species that was the crux of the State Water Board’s decision to reduce flows in the San Joaquin River tributaries. A forty percent reduction in flows translates to forty percent less water available for businesses and agricultural operations whose water supply is from the San Joaquin River. Though the Water Board didn’t accept the Voluntary Agreement offered by state agencies as an alternative to the forty percent reduction in flows because it was incomplete, they did agree to revisit it at a later date.

The assessment evaluates the possible effects that a project or action may have on a species listed as threatened or endangered as well as critical habitat protected by the Endangered Species Act. The assessment leads to a set of rules to help protect threatened or endangered species and seeks to establish new rules that allow for better operation of the CVP and the State Water Project (SWP) to meet the water supply needs of the people in urban and agricultural communities. The assessment requires science-based operational changes that respond to actual conditions rather than follow the out dated calendar-based approach to species protections. The effort by the Bureau responds to a consensus view within the scientific community and policy direction from the State of California that a comprehensive suite of actions is needed to improve protection of fish and wildlife.

The current biological opinions issued a decade ago by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Delta smelt and by the National Marine Fisheries Service for salmon have proven to be ineffective at helping the endangered fish. In fact, the opinions often worked against one another, requiring more water be stored upstream for one species while requiring more water be released for downstream for another species–all from the same water source, like Shasta Reservoir. It is a no win situation for the fish, communities and farmers.

The new assessment recognizes the failures of the older biological opinions, and utilizes science and operational flexibility to improve the efficiencies of both water projects. It also takes into account drought and prior policy decisions that affected operations. Science and adaptive management will determine how the projects will operate allowing more flexibility to respond to endangered species protection. No longer will flows be the single determinate factor for species health.

Release of the assessment is one effort of many required to improve conditions for fish and wildlife and make water supply more reliable. It dovetails with a framework for Voluntary Agreements developed by federal and state agencies in coordination with water agencies as an alternative approach to the State Water Board’s unimpaired flow standards that will reduce water supplies for residential, commercial and agricultural users. The Voluntary Agreements propose a comprehensive plan of flow and non-flow measures like habitat restoration or predator control to enhance endangered species and habitat conditions.

Valerie Nera, Policy Advocate