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Despite a Wet Year, Some California Wildlife Areas Miss Out on Water

Five state and federal wildlife refuges – critical habitat for migratory birds –will not get their full water deliveries this year, because the plumbing infrastructure required under a law passed in 1992 has never been built.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Agriculture runoff1
The sun sets over a man-made wetland at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Gustine, Calif., in 2007. It’s one of five refuges in California that are unable to access all the water it’s entitled to under federal law. With the plumbing in place, the refuges could open up more wetland areas like this one to provide vital habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

On April 11, the United States Bureau of Reclamation announced that all of its California Central Valley Project water customers will receive 100 percent of their contract supplies this year, for the first time since 2006.

This is a remarkable turnaround after five lean drought years, during which some of its agricultural customers received no water at all. But the bureau didn’t mention one group of customers missing out on this liquid largesse: wildlife refuges.

There are 19 state and federal wildlife refuges spanning California’s Central Valley, from Willows to Bakersfield. They provide some of the last habitat for migratory birds and hundreds of other wetland species, in a state that has lost 95 percent of its historic wetland habitat.

Five of these refuge areas will not get 100 percent of their water deliveries this year, even though California just had its second-wettest year in history. In fact, these five refuges have never received full water supplies, because the Bureau of Reclamation has failed to build the pumps, canals and other infrastructure needed to provide them, as required by a 1992 federal law.

The additional water the refuges are entitled to is relatively small. This year, the agency will deliver 9.5 million acre-feet (3 trillion gallons) of water – a 100 percent supply for all its urban and agricultural contractors. A full supply for all the wildlife refuges – if it could be delivered – is 555,000 acre-feet, or about 5 percent of the total.

“It’s pretty shocking, this far down the road, that we’re still thinking about how to get these conveyance facilities built,” said Meghan Hertel, director of land and water conservation at Audubon California. “There’s no reason why refuges should have been last in line to get their 100 percent allocation.”

Fourteen of the refuges will get 100 percent water deliveries this year because they have the right plumbing in place to receive it from the bureau’s network of reservoirs and canals in the Central Valley Project. For the remaining five, there’s simply no way to get that water to them, and for 25 years they have been forced to rely on other sources, such as local groundwater, or go without.

The five missing out on this year’s bountiful water supplies are Gray Lodge Wildlife Area and Sutter National Wildlife Refuge in the Sacramento Valley; and Mendota Wildlife Area, Pixley National Wildlife Refuge and part of San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) was adopted by Congress in 1992 to reform a water system that had begun to take a serious toll on aquatic habitat and endangered species. The act required the Bureau of Reclamation’s agricultural water contractors and hydro-electric beneficiaries to pay modest additional fees so Reclamation could purchase water for fishery flows and waterfowl habitat, and to build facilities to deliver that water where necessary.

According to the law, the bureau was supposed to finish building the plumbing projects by 2002. But many still have not been built.

The wildlife refuges highlighted in red are the five that are unable to receive full entitlements of water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation because the agency hasn’t built the infrastructure needed to move the water, despite a federal law that required the work to be done 15 years ago. (Image Courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

“Most delivery problems are south of the Delta,” said Rick Woodley, regional resources manager at the Bureau of Reclamation, who oversees the agency’s refuge water supply program. “That would require some additional conveyance facilities that don’t currently exist. Those are probably a way out yet, still.”

Woodley said one of the problems is that his bureau did not purchase permanent water rights for the wildlife refuges immediately after the CVPIA was passed. Since then, water has become much more scarce and expensive. So Reclamation has been limited to acquiring water, when available, using cheaper temporary purchase and lease agreements.

That generally means it can only acquire the full amount of water required by the law during very wet years. Thanks to a wet winter, Woodley expects he will secure all the required CVPIA water this year for the 14 refuges able to receive it. The only other time this happened was in 2011.

Still, the five remaining refuges cannot get their share of the bounty this year without new plumbing.

Woodley said even temporary water supplies are so expensive that it leaves the bureau with insufficient funds to build the required infrastructure.

“We’re competing with farms and cities to acquire this water, and it’s just not sustainable,” said Ric Ortega, general manager of Grassland Water District in Los Banos, a Reclamation water contractor that distributes to several dozen small waterfowl areas.

“There was a lot of missed opportunity early on, shortly after CVPIA was enacted,” he added. “There were cheap blocks of water, and they should have bought it and secured that stuff right out of the gate. The world has changed dramatically. The water market has skyrocketed, and we’re burning tens of millions of dollars on spot water that is only available on an annual basis.”

Besides actually purchasing water, in many cases the Bureau of Reclamation must pay other agencies to move refuge water through their systems before it can reach wetlands and waterfowl. These so-called “wheeling” charges can eat up more than half of its annual budget for refuge water, leaving too little to build new plumbing.

To its credit, the bureau has become more creative in finding refuge water. For example, the agency partnered in an urban wastewater recycling project involving the cities of Modesto, Ceres and Turlock. In the deal, Del Puerto Water District will swap irrigation water for treated wastewater, and Reclamation will send the saved irrigation water to wildlife refuges. But even this has a limited term; it’s not a permanent water supply for refuges.

“When the law was passed back in 1992, I think the intention at that point was that we would go out and acquire permanent water rights so it would be a permanent and reliable water supply,” Woodley acknowledged. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

On top of those challenges, Republicans in Congress are trying to weaken the CVPIA. Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, has introduced a bill that would slash the water contractor payments that support refuge purchases. It would undermine the law in a number of other ways, including appointing a panel of farmers and utility companies to oversee refuge water purchases.

In addition, a coalition of electricity utilities is suing the Bureau of Reclamation, alleging its share of the fees for habitat restoration programs under the CVPIA is unfair. A win for the utilities could mean even less money to purchase refuge water and install the plumbing to deliver it.

Some of the additional plumbing the refuges require is relatively simple, said Virginia Getz, conservation program manager at Ducks Unlimited. For instance, Sutter National Wildlife Refuge simply needs a large lift pump to access water in an existing canal when levels are very low. It has applied to the state for a $5.9 million grant to install such a pump. But there are still unanswered questions regarding how to move additional water into the canal for the refuge.

A black-necked stilt hunts along a man-made wetland at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Gustine, Calif., in 2007. Parts of this refuge and four others in the state can’t get all the water they’re entitled to under federal law because the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hasn’t built the necessary plumbing. (Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press)

At Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, the work is more extensive. To deliver Reclamation water, the refuge needs 4.5 miles of canal improvements and 65 water control structures. The project is estimated to cost $29 million.

At the other three refuges, Getz said, the new plumbing needs still have not been fully studied or designed. So, 25 years after the CVPIA became law and 15 years after the federal deadline passed, the plumbing needs and costs remain unknown.

Audubon’s Hertel said it appears the only way to make sure the work gets done is to file a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation. Nobody has been willing to do that yet.

“We don’t have a case in the works at this point,” Hertel said. “But it’s always something that’s in the back of our minds.”

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