Court orders cut in water deliveries to protect Delta fish

The State Water Contractors, an association of 27 public water agencies in California, reacted to the largest court-ordered water supply reduction in California history, citing statewide impacts to farms, businesses and people. Federal judge Oliver Wanger issued a final court order, issuing an operational plan that orders the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP), the state's two largest water delivery systems, to reduce pumping operations by up to nearly one-third...

• California water supply reduced up to nearly one-third

SACRAMENTO, CA, Dec. 14, 2007 -- The State Water Contractors, an association of 27 public water agencies in the Bay Area, Central and Southern California, today reacted to the largest court-ordered water supply reduction in California history, citing statewide impacts to farms, businesses and people.

Today, federal judge Oliver Wanger issued a final court order, issuing an operational plan that orders the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP), the state's two largest water delivery systems, to reduce pumping operations by up to nearly one-third. The two projects direct water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (Delta) to urban and agricultural water users. The operational plan, formalizing a preliminary framework issued by Judge Wanger on August 31, 2007, 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 federal 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. "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, such as an earthquake, major flood event, etc. 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.

"We have already faced enormous challenges this year and will undoubtedly face more in the coming year," added Moon. "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. 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 SWP 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.

Throughout the coming weeks, local public water agencies will be assessing direct impacts of the final court order to their regions and customers, including potential impacts on local economic growth.

As background, a federal court ruled, in May 2007, that the existing 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 CVP and SWP to ensure no long-term jeopardy to the health and habitat of Delta smelt. Until a revised biological opinion is prepared by the federal agencies, the court has ordered certain "remedies" or actions to protect the endangered fish species. Those remedies, imposed in the court-ordered operational plan, collectively amount to the cut in statewide water supply. While the court order will last until September of next year, these kinds of reductions will likely continue until the Delta system is fixed.

"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 Delta's failing condition has made it an increasingly unreliable pathway for delivering water to 25 million Californians, businesses and farms throughout the state. Aged and deteriorating levees, climate change, mounting regulatory uncertainties such as this most recent event and a struggling ecosystem plague the Delta more so today than ever before. These unprecedented challenges need to be addressed responsibly and in a timely manner in order to avoid immeasurable damages to California's water supply, environment, public health, statewide economy and infrastructure system.

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.

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