Westlands led Delta’s restoration project. Now he faces a confusing “boost”.

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If California sees its environmental goals achieved, does it really matter who contributed to the success?

For some environmental groups, the answer can be summed up in one word: “it depends”.

Or, in the case of a long-running project in the state’s largest agricultural water district, the mighty Westlands Water District, the answer is a little longer: “Yes, and no good deed goes unpunished.”

The district is facing a skirmish with conservationists over an effort to strengthen and restore fish habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – including the oft-maligned delta smelt – in support of long-term goals set by California regulators.

Now, two years after Westlands completed the restoration, conservationists are seeking to challenge the work and effectiveness of habitat restoration sought by state regulators and alter the agency’s results. water.

A 15-year Delta work

In 2007, Westlands acquired approximately 2,100 acres of cattle pasture in the lower portion of the historic Yolo Ranch to revert to the tidal marshes in an effort to restore habitat for native fish species in the delta region.

The project has been tied to many of the Golden State’s various ambitious water programs, with much of its success coming from the state’s Cal EcoRestore program.

The 2015 initiative aimed to restore 30,000 acres of habitat in the delta region.

“[Lower Yolo Ranch] has been repeatedly identified in official state documents, by individual entities researching and reporting that it is essentially a high priority restoration project and is in a very criticism for “Delta Smelt and Chinook salmon”, said Shelly Cartwright, Westlands Deputy General Manager for External Affairs.

Shortly after acquiring the land in 2007, Westlands applied for planning permission and approval for the project.

In 2020, thirteen years after acquiring the 2,100 acres of Yolo County land, the water agency completed its fish habitat restoration work.

dollars and common sense

After work is completed on their parcel, the new habitat is expected to ultimately be transferred to the State of California, with Westlands set to earn $23,815 per acre credited as restored habitat.

Land credits have become a bone of contention for conservationists who have argued that only a quarter of the area should be deemed restored.

In July, a letter from a slew of environmental groups — led by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club — called on the California Department of Water Resources to “reverse all Proposition 1 funding” dedicated to the restoration project. from Westlands Lower Yolo tidal marsh.

Westlands, for its part, notes that its habitat restoration project faced no pushback from the same environmental groups during its design review process or during lengthy review procedures. environmental review and permit.

Likewise, the Fresno-based water agency met with no opposition when a multi-agency panel, consisting of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service and from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – released its initial credit letter for the project, which would earn Westlands approximately $40 million when completed and transferred.

Westlands is also not in line to receive Prop funding. 1 as claimed by environmental activists, the district notes.

An Ave Maria to scramble funding

The timing of the two biggest US environmental lobbies pushing against the Westlands project is no mere coincidence.

Determining how many acres are considered part of the final project before the land is transferred to the State of California has major reimbursement implications for the work of Westlands, which totals tens of millions on this project alone. .

District officials await the final decision from this multi-agency review team, known as the “FAST” team, or Fisheries Agency Strategy Team.

However, since the completion of construction in 2020, the Lower Yolo Ranch project has undergone a post-construction review to determine whether its engineers followed the design requirements as set at the start of the project. project.

In addition, government officials questioned whether the project was operating as designed.

A year after construction, it appears the project is already producing encouraging results, undermining environmentalist claims of habitat effectiveness.

“While one year is not indicative of future success, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife shared with us that US Fish and Wildlife collected larvae for delta smelt at the inside the dining complex last year,” Cartwright said. “And these larvae are actually much larger than any they’ve collected in the delta.”

She noted that larvae from the Lower Yolo Ranch habitat measured between 20 and 23 millimeters, while other samples found in Delta collections measured only eight to 14 millimeters.

“They already have these smelt larvae and the fact that the Delta smelt were much larger than what they saw elsewhere was a very promising result,” she said.

“It shows that this was such a crucial project.”

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