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Drought to Hit Central Valley Wetlands Hard

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Hunting in a Central Valley wetland | Photo: Chris Clarke

A joint state and federal drought management plan released this week for the summer includes bad -- but not particularly surprising -- news for the Central Valley's wetlands.

The plan reaffirms that wildlife refuges and other managed wetlands in the California's largest valley will receive just 40 percent of the water from the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) in 2014 that they get in a typical year.

And to make matters worse, a typical year's deliveries from the CVP aren't enough to keep those wetlands and their wild inhabitants healthy. At best, such so-called "Level 2" deliveries provide only about half the water Valley wetlands need, and plan says this year's cuts mean those wetlands will only get between 15 and 30 percent of the water they need in 2014.

The imposingly titled "Central Valley Project and State Water Project Drought Operations Plan and Operational Forecast" was issued by the California Department of Water Resources in cooperation with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Central Valley Project, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the State Water Resources Control Board.

To tease out a detail that might be confusing: the CVP is run by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The State Water Project (SWP) is run by the state DWR. Both agencies are working together to coordinate their responses to the drought. The two projects are separate aqueduct systems that draw water from different Northern California reservoirs to send it southward.

The 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) established minimum environmental deliveries from the CVP to maintain wetlands: so-called "Level 2" water. The CVPIA also mandated that additional "Level 4" water be bought from other suppliers to supplement flows into wetlands to the point where they get the basic minimum amount of water they need. In the 22 years since the CVPIA passed, it's been rare that those additional Level 4 supplies ever reach levels mandated by law.

The Central Valley might just be one of the most massively altered landscapes in the world. What was a 400-mile-long chain of lakes, wetlands, vernal pools, and flower-filled meadows running from the site of present-day Red Bluff to the Tehachapis has been almost entirely plowed, drained, diked and filled.

By the time the Central Valley Project Improvement Act passed, intended to remedy some of the environmental issues caused by our massive reengineering of the state's water systems, over 95 percent of the Central Valley's original wetland habitat had been destroyed. An ecosystem that once supported tens of millions of migrating birds, provided nurseries for salmon, and homes for mammals such as tule elk and river otters was almost entirely lost -- as was Tulare Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

This year's drought threatens to do even more damage to the Valley's irreplaceable chain of ecosystems, as agribusiness interests dependent on publicly subsidized water openly deride the importance of environmental protection.

In response to the release of the drought plan, at least one environmental group is hoping to make the best of a difficult situation. "Because of the importance of these refuges to migratory birds throughout the hemisphere, it's vital that we do what we can to keep these habitats stable," said Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California. "During this difficult time, we look forward to working with the Department of Resources to ensure that the drought operations management takes into account the best timing and allocation of the very limited water resources currently granted to refuges."

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