Westlands to Provide Habitat for Delta Smelt

The Westlands Water District, which is the largest agricultural water district in the United States, announced recently that it acquired property in the northern Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The district plans to restore natural tidal wetlands and upland habitat for the protection and conservation of listed species, including the smelt. The district is based in Fresno, Calif.

Westlands encompasses more than 600,000 acres in an area 15 miles wide and 70 miles long on the west side of California’s Central Valley. To address chronic water supply shortages resulting from environmental regulations in the Delta, Westlands has, at its own expense, fallowed nearly 100,000 acres. The water district serves more than 600 families who farm some of the most productive agricultural lands in the world.

"We’re trying to solve a problem that is of critical importance, not just for agriculture but also for 25 million Californians who get drinking water and water for irrigation from supplies conveyed through and pumped from the Delta,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands.

A federal court in California has ordered new restrictions on Central Valley Project and State Water Project operations that will result in massive water supply reductions, amounting to a loss of one-third of the water that is normally delivered from the Delta. Those deliveries are needed to supply billions of dollars worth of agricultural production in the Central Valley and meet the water needs of two-thirds of the state’s residents.

These restrictions are in addition to prior restrictions prescribed for the protection of the smelt and come on top of two years of an ongoing drought. As a result, many experts are predicting major losses for the state’s economy and water shortages in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego.

The Delta property that Westlands acquired is in the area identified by state and federal fisheries experts as the prime location to create habitat for the smelt. Lying at the southernmost tip of Yolo County, the property is currently used for farming. Westlands plans to convert portions of the property to create habitat for the smelt and maintain the rest in agriculture.

“The plight of the smelt is just one part of the problems facing the Delta,” Birmingham pointed out. “We’re working with other public water agencies, state and federal authorities, and the scientific community to define ways to restore the Delta, increase the reliability and adequacy of water deliveries, and ensure the safety of the public water supply. It is a complicated process, but everyone agrees that protecting the smelt is an essential element of any comprehensive plan for restoring the Delta and providing improved conveyance.”

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