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Fish Become Focus In War Over Future Of Delta Water

BAKERSFIELD (KPIX 5) - A sportfish has become a target in the war over water rights in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The debate over the striped bass is coming to light amid a controversial state proposal to build two twin tunnels under the Delta.

A group called the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta is blaming the stripers for killing off native salmon by eating them. But Delta sport fishermen say it's just a distraction from the real issue - all the water that is being diverted south. As they say, water flows to money.

"The first thing you have to do is follow the money. These people who are making this statement, who finances them?" asked sportfishing Delta guide Bobby Barrack.

Tax documents show the top officers of the Coalition are employees of Paramount Farms, the biggest producer of almonds and pistachios in the world. It's part of an agribusiness empire that includes Pom Pomegranate and Fiji water, owned by Beverly Hills Billionaires Stuart and Lynda Resnick.

The Resnicks also own a majority interest in the Kern Water Bank, the biggest underground water storage facility in the world. The bank allows them to buy Delta water from the state, store it and then use it in dry years, or sell it.

So why go after striped bass?

"They are just looking for anything that pins the tail on something other than their exports," said Bill Jennings of the California Sportfishing Alliance.

Jennings says it all started a few years ago, when water exports were cut back to protect endangered salmon. Jennings says if "stripers" can be blamed for the salmon decline instead, those restrictions could be eased and more water could flow south again.

"If we eliminate the environmental protections they could take more water," he said.

Paramount farms never responded to our calls, but we were able to talk to Jonathan Parker, General Manager of the Kern Water Bank.

"What the participants need is a reliable water supply. If water gets less and less reliable in the state they will have to use it more and more," Parker said.

He said six participants share the water bank. Paramount Farms is the biggest stakeholder, with 48% ownership. He said there's about a million acre feet of water stored in it right now, enough to serve a million families for a year.

The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta declined an interview, but in an email said "the suggestion that we have initiated the striped bass litigation to divert attention from water exports could not be more unfounded."

Back on the Delta, Bobby Barrack disagrees: "This water…belongs to every single one of you people in the State of California. It is a public trust, and what is fixing to happen - this stuff right here is going to be used to make money for a few wallets."

The Department of Fish and Wildlife settled the Coalition's lawsuit by recommending new regulations to reduce the striper population. However, the state's Fish and Game Commission did not move forward on that.

The coalition also points out that other factors contribute to native fisheries decline, such as pollution and pumping operations.

The following is an email from Michael Boccadoro, Spokesperson for the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta:

As you may be aware, water users who will benefit from the increased reliability associated with BDCP (state and federal water contractors) will be required to directly pay for its implementation. These water users include some 25 million residents, tens of thousands of farming operations and literally hundreds of thousands of individual businesses in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California who depend on the Delta for all or part of their water supplies. It will be difficult for any of these "beneficiaries" to comment until all of the details and potential costs and benefits are determined.

Restore the Delta and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance have repeatedly made baseless claims for the past several years. We continue, as I stated in our phone discussion, to not see any benefit to responding on air to these unfounded claims. However, I am happy to provide you with a comprehensive response to both issues here in writing. My hope is you will better understand the issues and not feel the need to ask parties to respond to the unfounded claims of critics. While I fully respect your desire to get both sides of the story, responsible news organizations have a higher responsibility to not reportunfounded claims in the first place.

The striped bass predation issue could not be more straightforward. Striped bass area a non-native invasive species that extensive scientific evidence shows predates on native endangered salmon. CDF&W's own experts have suggested that striped bass consume as many as 20-40 percent of endangered migrating salmon smolts. Understanding that simple fact, how can it make sense that the State of California's policy is to protect the non-native species at the expense of the native endangered salmon? Simple answer… it doesn't. Which is why we sued the CDF&W and they settled the suit with us. Our position on striped bass predation is not only supported by CDF&W but by the Federal fishery regulators as well. A copy of their letter and statements are available on our website.

The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta was formed by water users (mostly farmers) who depend on the Delta for delivery of their water supplies. From the beginning, we have worked in favor of a comprehensive solution that seeks to address the multiple factors or "stressors" that impact the Delta. Every major recent study or scientific discussion of the Delta has identified a host of factors including predation, toxic wastewater dischargers, urban run-off, in-Delta pumping, storm water and agricultural run-off, development impacts on habitat, in additional to state and federal water pumping operations that impact the estuary and environment. However, most regulatory actions have been focused exclusively on the pumps while other stressors remain ignored or overlooked. The Coalition has effectively worked to draw attention to and gain appropriate regulatory action on other stressors so that a sustainable solution can be achieved. Existing restrictions or additional restrictions on water pumping operations will not solve the problem if these other stressors remain unaddressed and persist in impacting the Delta. We have never suggested that water pumping operations are not part of the problem. State and Federal water pumping operations have well documented impacts on the Delta (as discussed on our website) and its native species. However, so do many of the other stressors identified and documented on our website. Our efforts have drawn increased regulatory action on harmful impacts associated with wastewater discharges (ammonia) in and upstream of the Delta. We have also taken action to hold industry (power plants), and municipalities (cities of Stockton and Sacramento & San Joaquin County) accountable for their impacts associated with storm and waste water discharges.

We have also initiated extensive scientific research on the multiple stressors impacting Delta fisheries and effectively draw on that research to guide our activities and actions.

The suggestion that we have initiated the striped bass litigation or any other action "to divert attention from water exports " could not be more unfounded. We have sought to get these other stressors addressed as part of a comprehensive solution. The positive and successful legal and regulatory outcomes we have achieved further substantiate the legitimacy of our efforts. Most importantly, we have never (ever) suggested that efforts to address the impact of the pumps are also not clearly needed. You may want to ask the "critics" to document their claim to the contrary.

Finally, the suggestion that we are a "front group for one company" also could not be more unfounded. The Coalition is made up of over a hundred individual supporters and our efforts benefit all of these companies as well as the 25 million Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California residents, tens of thousands of farming operations and hundreds of thousands of businesses who get all or a portion of their water supplies from the Delta.

The negative campaign tactics of the Restore the Delta and the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance are also not conducive to productive discussions of the real issues surrounding the state's ongoing water supply crisis and do great harm by distracting policy makers seeking to find truly balanced statewide solutions.

Email from Semitropic Water Storage District:

The perception that the Water Bank is only accessible to a handful of participants is not exactly true because there are the first priority users that gave up state water entitlement (i.e. paid for the project), primarily because the State did not meet and has not met its contractual water supply obligation, and participation is open to second priority local users on an if and when capacity available basis.

Semitropic does not sell water to anyone other than its landowners, except for some years ago Semitropic joined a group in a sale of previously stored Project Water to the Environmental Water Account.

Email from Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District:

The characterization of "folks in the Delta are upset" is misleading. The only "folks in the Delta" I know who are upset about the Kern Water Bank are the Center for Biological Diversity which has sued the Department of Water Resources over its CEQA analysis of the State Water Project Monterey Contract Amendments. It may be the Center does not consist of any "folks in the Delta" - you should ask them. Since the Center has an agenda to deprive the public of water supplies from the Delta, you should be careful to fact check any statements they make on the matter since many of their past statements on the Kern Water Bank have been factually in error.

The Kern Water Bank is accessible to those who paid to acquire and develop it, and is also accessible on a second priority basis to neighboring water districts who did not pay for it. Your car is not accessible to me, and it shouldn't be because you paid for it and acquired the usage rights, and I did not. This does not make me upset. I suggest the acquisition of the Kern Water Bank by public agencies and a mutual water company should not make those without rights to the use of the facility upset. These people should acquire and develop their own water bank if they desire one. Warning - this is very hard and expensive to do.

3. Of course the water can be resold. The purpose of any water bank is to store wet year water supplies for recovery in dry years. The water is resold to recover the costs of the stored water including capital and operating costs of the facility. The District resells the water it stores in the Kern Water Bank to its customers who pay the costs thereof. Given the unreliable nature of the State Water Project water supplies, this is indispensable to meeting the water needs of the District's agricultural customers to produce food.

Email from Kern County Water Agency Improvement District 4:

ID4 was formed to provide a supplemental water supply for portions of the metropolitan Bakersfield area through the importation of water from the SWP. The imported supply is delivered to ID4 customers (purveyors) in two ways: 1: Through direct recharge of the aquifer underlying ID4; and 2: As a drinking water supply after treatment through the Henry C. Garnett Water Purification Plant.

The water supply agreements between ID4 and its purveyors (customers) provide the terms and conditions for ID4 to deliver a wholesale drinking water supply. ID4 purveyors provide water to their customers on a retail basis. One of the four purveyors wholesales water to a mutual water company, which provides water to retail customers.

ID4 has participated in special water management programs (e.g., dry year programs) with the California Department of Water Resources and local Kern County Water Agency Member Units. The costs charged under these programs allowed ID4 to recover some of its investment in the Kern Water Bank facilities.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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