FRESNO — California water and wildlife officials on Tuesday seized upon the deaths of a rare fish in the water pumps that carry water to California's cities and farms to renew calls for replacing the current pumping system with $14 billion twin tunnels.
The deaths of too many of the protected delta smelt in recent months have led to a series of pumping restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, officials said. The pumps ferry water to 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland.
The number of smelt killed this year is nearing an annual limit set on the number of smelt that can be killed under the Endangered Species Act. Already, the pumps have killed 232 smelt and the rules allow only 305 smelt to be killed at the pumps over the entire water year.
As a result of the restrictions triggered by the smelt deaths, 700,000 acre feet of water were not delivered to water users. That has not led to any current water shortages, but less water will be available for storage and may impact some farmers and other water users this coming summer, officials said.
Those restrictions could be averted if the new tunnels are built, they said. Gov. Jerry Brown supports the project.
Those twin tunnels would take water in the north of the delta, thus averting the smelt's travel toward the deadly pumps in the south. The twin tunnel project would also come with state-of-the-art fish screens and additional fish habitat, which officials said would help the fish thrive.
It would take 10 years to build the twin tunnels. In the meantime, the fish kill may result in additional restrictions this year, officials said.
The increased fish kill this year may have resulted from early December storms that flushed muddy water down the Sacramento River. That flush, which occurs every few years, triggered the migration of smelt, which got pulled south and into the killing pumps.