U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger's Extraordinary Ruling To Save The Endangered Delta Smelt Could Cost California As Much As 2 Million Acre-Feet Of Water A Year
SACRAMENTO – A federal judge yesterday ordered a dramatic slowdown in pumping water to Southern California – an unprecedented decision aimed at protecting a tiny fish in the Sacramento delta, but one that will have widespread economic and political repercussions across the state.
U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger’s extraordinary ruling to save the endangered delta smelt could cost California as much as 2 million acre-feet of water a year – enough for 4 million people – and raises the prospects of rationing and thousands of acres of idled farmland.
The San Diego County Water Authority expects to be squeezed. The Sacramento delta is the source of nearly 40 percent of the region’s annual supply, and local officials are studying their options.
“Supply shortages and mandatory water-use restrictions are a very real possibility,” said Fern Steiner, chairwoman of the water authority board.
Longer term, the loss of urban and farm deliveries will pile more water woes on an already parched state. California is in the throes of a deepening dry spell, from the Colorado River to the Sierra. Climate change is expected to make Mother Nature more fickle. And booming growth will only increase demand.
Solutions will be costly and polarizing, from building reservoirs to resurrecting the once-rejected Peripheral Canal to move water around the delta.
Wanger’s decision in a Fresno courtroom drew a sharp rebuke from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is aggressively pressing for delta restoration.
“Today’s federal court ruling to drastically cut delta water exports is further proof that our water system is broken, unreliable and in crisis,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “This decision is also going to have a devastating impact on the state’s economy and the 25 million Californians who depend on delta water.”
State water suppliers agreed that the decision is the most far-reaching of its kind in the history of California’s well-documented water wars.
“It will have a significant impact on our economy and quality of life,” said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the water authority.
The Sacramento delta is the hub of California’s water supply. Two-thirds of the state’s drinking water and irrigation supplies to more than 1 million acres of farmland flow through the 1,100-mile maze of waterways.
In his ruling, Wanger sided with environmentalists who say the 3-inch smelt are sucked down the delta and killed by the water pumps. The smelt also is an indicator of the overall health of the delta’s valuable ecosystem, they say.
“The evidence is uncontradicted that these project operations move the fish,” Wanger said, according to The Associated Press. “It happens, and the law says something has to be done about it.”
State and federal officials, as well as many farmers and businesses that rely on supplies, counter that other factors such as pollution and predators are also to blame.
Officials were still sorting out the ruling Wagner made from the bench, but late yesterday they estimated that the smelt safeguards will prevent state and federal pumps from delivering 14 percent to 37 percent of normal capacity. That amounts to 800,000 acre-feet to 2 million acre-feet a year.
The judge did not set a precise figure. The final amount, as interpreted by state water officials, depends on how close the smelt are to the pumps and at what time of the year.
The order will stay in effect from December until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopts a new plan to safeguard the fish, probably in spring. By all accounts, that plan will also require a large amount of water.
In effect, water officials say, the smelt will compound California’s water shortages for years to come.
At the same time, agencies will have to scramble to find water from willing sellers, potentially creating a bidding war. However, it might be difficult for those securing supplies to find a time when the pumps will be free to ship additional supplies.
San Diego might be 450 miles from the pumps near Tracy, but what happens in the delta will have a lasting effect on the region’s water supply and economy.
The region’s 2007 water-supply figures clearly show its precarious position.
The water authority is counting on the delta for 288,580 acre-feet. That’s 39 percent of its total deliveries of 748,000 acre-feet and enough to serve about 577,000 households for a year. An acre-foot is enough to meet the annual needs of two households.
Still undetermined is whether the fallout will mean droughtlike rationing or continuing less-onerous voluntary conservation. But water managers statewide say rationing is more likely now.
San Diego battled its wholesaler, the giant Metropolitan Water District, over scarce allocations at the height of the 1987-92 drought. While relations between the two agencies have improved, Metropolitan still controls deliveries.
The water authority contracts with Metropolitan for 614,000 acre-feet a year, or 82 percent of its annual need.
A decision on how much and how soon the cuts will carve into the region’s supply will be debated in the Metropolitan board room this fall.
How much San Diego County residents and business will be squeezed also “depends on how kind Mother Nature is to us,” Stapleton said.
The longe-range forecast for drought-busting storms is not promising, said Doug Le Conte, a drought specialist with the National Weather Service.
“The news is not good,” he said.
Le Conte forecasts below-average snowfall throughout the Colorado River Basin this winter. This would extend the dry spell along the river into a ninth year.
Heavy snows in the Sierra may not materialize, compounding shortages in the Delta. The Sierra snowpack was about 30 percent of normal last season. Only brimming reservoirs forestalled immediate and more painful reductions.
Le Conte predicts a normal weather pattern – at best – for the Sierra.
In response to the deepening supply crisis, water districts across California have launched a series of voluntary water conservation programs. The San Diego County Water Authority and Metropolitan are calling for a 10 percent reduction.
County water authority officials are searching to buy up to 50,000 acre-feet water to store in Kern County. They also are moving forward with plans to enlarge San Vicente Reservoir by 52,000 acre-feet and may consider adding another 100,000 acre-feet of capacity later.
In Sacramento, the judge’s decision may increase pressure on lawmakers to act on proposals to approve reservoirs and build a new fish-friendly plumbing system to deliver water through the delta.
Schwarzenegger has endorsed a $5.9 billion bond to pay for two reservoirs, study a water conveyance system, open more groundwater aquifers and improve the delta.
But key Democrats were leaning against the governor’s proposal, not convinced of the need to build reservoirs and wary of a new aqueduct.
“Desalination must be included in any discussion of future water sources for Orange County."