NMSF Opinion Further Cuts California Water Supply

Additional restrictions on the state's water projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were announced recently, further reducing the amount of water available to people, businesses, and farms throughout California.

The California Department of Water Resources has initially forecasted that these restrictions will cut approximately 10 percent in statewide water deliveries (300,000 - 500,000 acre-feet) on average, expected to begin in 2010. These cuts are in addition to the heavy restrictions that were imposed in December 2008 to address the decline of another fish species, the Delta smelt.

"Every time we get hit with new cutbacks, it's like closing another lane on the water supply freeway. Pretty soon, the only way we'll be able to move water will be by helicopter," said Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors.

The cutbacks were outlined in a biological opinion for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The biological opinion, or permit, sets guidelines for State Water Project and Central Valley Project (CVP) pumping operations out of the Delta. The new biological opinion increases restrictions on water project operations even though the projects are currently limited to taking no more than two percent (2 percent) of the listed salmon populations in the Delta. Changing ocean conditions have been recently identified by federal fish agencies and scientists as the primary cause of salmon decline, in addition to significant ocean harvests.

"Public water agencies have faced cutback after cutback in failed attempts to boost fish populations. Project operations are only one potential reason for the fish decline. Strict policies that limit water projects to no more than two percent of the listed salmon populations in the Delta are already enforced," added Moon.

Public water agencies throughout the state have filed lawsuits challenging the opinion. Recently, a federal court ruled in favor of CVP water agencies, ordering the federal fish agencies to comply with environmental laws and take into account the harm that the water cutbacks have on people. The State Water Contractors' case will be heard in federal court later this year.

There has been no conclusive scientific evidence that water delivery cutbacks from the Delta will benefit the fish species they aim to protect. Invasive plants and aquatic animals are upsetting chemical and biological balances in the Delta, toxic runoff from pesticides and wastewater treatment plant discharges are flowing through Delta waters, and nonnative predator fish introduced for sport fishing have altered the natural food web.

The State Water Contractors is a statewide, nonprofit association of 27 public agencies from Northern, Central and Southern California that purchase water under contract from the California State Water Project.

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