Court Order Further Depresses Calif. Water Supply

On Dec. 14, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger's court order issued an operational plan requiring the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, the state's two largest water delivery systems, to reduce pumping operations by up to nearly one-third.

The projects direct water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to urban and agricultural water users. The operational plan calls for the massive reduction in water supplies to protect an endangered fish species, the Delta smelt. The court has specified that reduced operations will last until September 15, 2008, while federal agencies develop a revised biological opinion for Delta smelt that will ensure the projects' compliance with Endangered Species Act requirements.

"To have such a large reduction in statewide water supplies is not only significant, but unprecedented," said Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors, based in Sacramento. "For the next nine months, the backbone of the state's water system will be operated based on a lawsuit. Reducing water supplies through the courts won't solve the fundamental problems in the Delta. We need a smarter water system so that the courts don't face this situation in the future."

Local water agencies will have to rely on contingency and emergency sources of water, including local groundwater and storage supplies, to lessen direct impacts on their customers. However, by doing so, they will exhaust or significantly limit supplies that would be needed for a drought or major catastrophe. Local agencies are particularly concerned about depleting their back up reserves during the current drought -- 2007 has been the driest year on record for parts of California.

"This court-ordered reduction will only place further hardship on water agencies throughout the state and ultimately, consumers, businesses, farmers and the economy as a whole," said Moon. "This is an expensive way to try to restore Delta smelt and likely won't succeed unless there is a comprehensive program addressing all the stressors on this fish species."

This significant reduction in water supply will be experienced in the Bay Area, Central and Southern California. The State Water Project alone, a critical source of water for the majority of California, provides water to two out of every three people, irrigates 750,000 acres of prime agricultural lands and directly supports $400 million of the state's trillion-dollar economy.

The most immediate impacts of the court ruling will be felt in agricultural communities as farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, Inland Empire and San Diego region are forced to abandon crop planting this winter and spring. Urban water users will need to conserve water during this critical time period. In some regions, consumers may be asked for more stringent water restrictions, including rationing, and may experience increased costs.

In May 2007, a federal court ruled that the 2005 biological opinion for Delta smelt, issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, did not comply with the Endangered Species Act. The biological opinion guides pumping operations for the water projects to ensure no long-term jeopardy to the health and habitat of Delta smelt.

"Every day it becomes increasingly clear that we must decide on a solution for our broken water delivery system," added Moon. "Moving water through the Delta is an outdated method of delivering water to 25 million people. We need to look at ways of moving water around the Delta to help secure the state's water future and protect the ecosystem."

The State Water Contractors is a non-profit association of 27 public agencies from Northern, Central and Southern California that purchase water under contract from the California State Water Project. Collectively the State Water Contractors deliver water to more than 25 million residents throughout the state and more than 750,000 acres of agricultural lands.

The Association of California Water Agencies also had something to say about the order. Timothy Quinn, executive director, said his organization calls for a comprehensive fix to improve the Delta's ecosystem and provide a reliable water supply.

“This order will result in an unprecedented reduction in our statewide water supplies next year. The impacts will be significant and will likely be felt in nearly every region of the state.

“No one wants to see further decline of the Delta smelt population. The additional monitoring required by the order will help safeguard the fish and allow us to more accurately manage the system in the short-term,” Quinn said.

“The current system for moving water through the Delta does not work, and the problem will not be solved until we make some major changes."

The group is a statewide association of public agencies whose 450 members are responsible for about 90 percent of the water delivered in California.

The State Water Contractors, an association of 27 public water agencies in the Bay Area, Central and Southern California, recently reacted to the largest court-ordered water supply reduction in California history, citing statewide impacts to farms, businesses and people.

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