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Executive Summary for September 22nd

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including a crucial vote on California’s controversial water tunnel project, a water-related national monument boundary change in Nevada, and the effects of the Pacific Ocean ‘blob’ on salmon.

Published on Sep. 22, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Westlands Water District Rejects California Water Tunnel Plan

California’s ambitious and controversial plan to build two giant water diversion tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta may have reached the end of the road on September 19.

That’s when the board of directors of Westlands Water District voted against a financing plan for the project.

“There’s just too many unknowns,” said board member Larry Enos, also a farmer in the district, which spans several counties in the San Joaquin Valley.

As the largest agricultural irrigation district in the nation, Westlands was expected to pick up a large share of the bill for the $17 billion tunnel project. But doing so would have more than doubled the cost of water for Westlands farmers. Ultimately, they decided that was too expensive for a project that wasn’t able to guarantee more water.

The project, known as California WaterFix, has been in the works for more than a decade and is heavily supported by Gov. Jerry Brown. It calls for two giant tunnels, each 35 miles long, diverting water from three locations on the Sacramento River. The goal was to reduce harm to native fish in the Delta and thereby make water exports more reliable. Existing state and federal diversion systems in the Delta serve 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland.

The other big financial backer of the project was expected to be the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The district’s board is scheduled to vote on the tunnels in October. But Met general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger told the Sacramento Bee the Westlands vote probably kills the project.

“Absent Westlands, you don’t have a (tunnels) project,” said Kightlinger. “My board has been pretty clear … they’re not in the business of subsidizing agriculture.”

In Nevada, Water Is the Focus of Monument Boundary Change

The Trump administration made headlines this week over its long-awaited announcement to shrink several national monuments enacted by prior presidents.

The announcement was woefully short on specifics, but one change is intended specifically to benefit urban water use in Nevada.

The boundaries of Gold Butte National Monument, located in Nevada about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, will be adjusted to exclude springs that serve as water supply for the town of Mesquite and the Virgin Valley Water District.

Kevin Brown, general manager of the district, told the Las Vegas Sun the boundary change his agency sought from interior secretary Ryan Zinke covers about 25 square miles in the Virgin Mountains – roughly 5 percent of the overall monument area.

“Our recommendation (to Zinke) was to just make the northern boundary of the monument match the water district’s southern boundary,” Brown said. “Until it all plays out, we’ll be cautiously optimistic that something will be done to protect the water district resources up on the mountain.”

Nevertheless, the change is opposed by the Paiute Tribe and by Nevada Congressional representatives, who argue that the district’s springs are protected by monument status.

“We are ready to challenge the matter in court,” said Jaina Moan, president of Friends of Gold Butte. “Our feeling is, any reductions by executive order would be illegal.”

Warm-Water ‘Blob’ May Be Gone, but It Still Affects Pacific Salmon

An unusually massive patch of warm water in the Pacific Ocean that contributed to the recent drought in Western states has finally dissipated. But salmon will feel the effects for years to come because the ocean ecosystem has been scrambled.

This summer, federal research surveys recorded some of the lowest numbers of juvenile coho and Chinook salmon for 20 years. This indicates that many fish did not survive their first months at sea. Returns of adult steelhead to the Columbia River that went to sea as juveniles a year ago rank among the lowest in 50 years.

Conversely, a number of marine creatures usually found farther south and in warmer waters have been spotted in abundance along the coasts of Washington and Oregon – some for the first time.

“There was hardly any salmon out there,” said Brian Burke, a research fisheries biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “Something is eating them and we don’t know what and we don’t know precisely where.”

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