Delta Smelt in Decline; More Severe Water Constraints Likely

The most recent Calif. Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) annual fall population survey concluded the Delta smelt population is at its lowest level in nearly 50 years. At the same time, the National Weather Service (NWS) released its Seasonal Drought Outlook for the first quarter of 2015; the projections are not promising.

While California has received its normal water-year-to-date precipitation (or more), most of what we have received has been rainfall as opposed to snowfall. Snowpack content in the Sierra and Cascades stands at less than 40 percent of normal. The NWS outlook predicts “most of the state will still be in drought to some degree by the end of April.”

Not only the Delta smelt is in decline; the populations of numerous threatened and endangered Delta species have become alarmingly low, with many species approaching record lows.

Now, state and federal agencies have released a Drought Contingency Plan that outlines steps to be taken to stretch California’s existing water supplies and protect fish species. A similar plan was released in 2014, but this year’s plan was released much earlier in anticipation of worsening drought conditions.

INRM Perspective

The events leading to the early release of a contingency plan, and the predictable declines in fish populations in stressed ecosystems such as the San Francisco Bay Delta, indicate that agency leaders likely will impose greater water restraints in 2015 than were imposed in 2014. They also indicate that agencies are increasingly likely to embrace integrated projects that conserve water and fish in concert with forests and air quality.

Scientists offer compelling data that shows even before we started talking about climate change, extended droughts were part of California’s natural reality. Now we face a warmer, drier climate and a greater likelihood of longer, more severe droughts. So with increasing scientific evidence supporting the notion that investing in forest management can reduce firefighting costs and sequester more carbon, and increasing biomass energy production can improve water storage capacity and create jobs, and sustainable agriculture can safeguard water sources and support abundant biodiversity, integrated management projects are gaining favor for their combination of economies-of-scale savings, broader reach, and accelerated implementation.

As we enter our fourth year of drought, sacrifices must be made in the name of conserving water. 2015 may not be this drought’s final year. We have to reduce water use and increase recycling efforts like crazy.

We also must commit to programs and efforts that will pay not only immediate dividends, but also long-term returns. We can improve water supply reliability, reduce emissions from wildfire, and sustain incredible biodiversity. California’s government, business and environmental leaders need to not only encourage but also invest in innovation and creativity – California’s strongest attributes. Our natural resources are our greatest legacy. Integrated resource management can provide the most efficient and effective roadmap for a prosperous and sustainable future.

Rainfall may soon replace snowfall as California’s primary form of precipitation. That is going to cause change, and California’s communities, agencies and businesses must adapt to that change. Those that do early will thrive.

The CDFW and NWS reports are related, as are wildfires, mudslides, water capacity and carbon emissions. This is the year to address that reality at the landscape level.

There is ample scientific support for managing California’s upper watersheds to increase water yield, and that doing so on as broad a scale possible can return the greatest returns in economic and ecological benefit. Acting early and in cooperation with diverse stakeholders will create the most immediate, and long-lasting opportunities.

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