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Drain the Swamp, not the Sierra

The president of the United States wants to “Drain the Swamp”. Of course he is using this saying as a metaphor for mismanagement and government waste. It seems to me that California, however, is hell bent to drain the Sierra Nevada – in the literal sense – as if this action was without consequence. While I support “Draining the Swamp” of excess bureaucracy, I do not support and am opposed to California’s “Draining the Sierra” or taking water from one ecological region to meet the environmental needs of another. The Delta depends on the Sierra as the largest reservoir of banked water in all of California. Draining the Sierra will defeat the Delta Stewardship Council’s objective to coequally achieve water supply reliability and restore the Delta’s ecosystem.

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in a packet of 2009 state legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. By the State’s definition, “coequal goals” means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem…(CA Water Code §85054)

To achieve the coequal goals, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way water is managed and the water systems are operated in the Delta, its watershed, and all of California.

Critically important to the Delta, and really all of California, is its Sierra Nevada watershed and the communities that live, work, recreate and utilize the water before it continues downstream. These rural watershed communities are the true stewards of the source of water for the Delta. Though an essential component to the survival of the Delta, rarely are these rural watershed communities recognized for the natural resources and significance to the Delta and California.

Environmental groups want more water for the fish in the Delta and are willing to sacrifice the quality of life of communities in the Sierra Nevada, underscoring their demand for permanent and forced water rationing in our rural communities. It is about extracting this resource out of the Sierra to satisfy other downstream interests. First, gold, then timber, and now water.

Ignored are published independent Delta science reports. To have a robust fishery, there needs to be ample food, habitat, and cold water at the right time. So why send more water out through the Delta conveyance system without first reducing the stressors in the Delta? I hear, “to flush the Bay”. Seems like self-centered special interest tactics. We need a systemwide approach with stewards to implement sound and properly managed functional flows at the right time to satisfy all the beneficial uses, not one or two.

The Sierra Nevada watershed is what is referred to in the Delta as the “Secondary Zone”. Catastrophic wildland fires in the Secondary Zone are a threat to water supply and downstream water quality. The overstocked forest and the dead, dying trees is unprecedented. If the Delta is to survive and thrive, we need to fix the Secondary Zone. It is critical that the state sequester water for later use and reduce catastrophic fires that harm the environment and reduce natural water storage.

Much has been written and promoted about the need for more surface water storage, challenged by those that want to drain the Sierra by removing dams and the stored water. This is hypocritical. Many who are opposed to dams and storage, fish and raft in our world-renowned white-water rivers. Removal of dams would dry up much of our river system in summer months. It is essential that cold fresh water is stored in northern California reservoirs, sequestered in the Sierra to provide for multiple beneficial uses later, including rafting and fishing.

The Delta Stewardship Council has the leadership role and the responsibility to achieve the coequal goals, and not drain the Sierra Nevada. The difficult challenge for the Council is to wade through flawed regulatory policies and special interests to shepherd bold and fundamental changes in a complex integrated water management system. Only if the Council succeeds will we be able to achieve a healthy Delta, watershed and ecosystem, and a reliable water supply for California.

John Kingsbury is executive director of the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association.