|New rules will cut delta water pumping by up to 33 percent
By Paul Rogers
Article Launched: 12/15/2008 07:13:44 PM PST
Federal biologists on Monday issued new rules that will reduce the amount of water pumped to cities and farms from San Francisco Bay's delta by as much as one-third in some years — part of a court-ordered effort to save a two-inch, silvery fish from extinction.
The long-awaited "biological opinion" from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could have a significant impact on Silicon Valley, which receives roughly half of its drinking water from the delta and the other half from local underground aquifers.
"It feels like a double whammy. We've had two dry years and we've had reduced imported water from the delta," said Susan Siravo, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
Including the current storms, San Jose's rainfall totals 46 percent of normal for this time of year. Based on how wet the winter is, the Santa Clara Valley Water District will decide by March whether to order mandatory rationing for Silicon Valley residents for the first time since 1991.
Cutting delta deliveries clearly worsens Silicon Valley's plight, although the area is not as vulnerable as places like the East Bay because of its large underground supplies.
The delta decision was not unexpected.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, a Republican based in Fresno, ordered it last year after environmentalists won a lawsuit contending that the Bush administration violated the Endangered Species Act by increasing pumping from the delta in ways that harmed the delta smelt.
The tiny smelt can be ground up in the massive state and federal pumps near Tracy that deliver water to 25 million Californians and that irrigate millions of acres of Central Valley farmland.
Environmentalists called Monday's news overdue.
"The delta smelt is a bellwether for the health of the delta," said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. "What has happened to the smelt is indicative of what has happened to salmon and other species. We have increased pumping from the delta over the past decade and seen dramatic reductions in their numbers."
Others called the order a travesty.
"California's primary water supply has just taken another big hit," said Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors, an association of 27 farm and city water districts.
More than 300 pages long, Monday's rule sets a complex formula under which the state and federal government must release water from reservoirs, change pumping practices and take other measures to protect the delta smelt.
In normal years, those measures will result in a 17 percent reduction in pumping, the same reduction that occurred in 2008 under interim measures from Judge Wanger. In "worst case" years that are dry with other conditions such as high turbidity that threaten the smelt, the cuts could be as high as 33 percent.
California's problem is simple. Three-quarters of the rain and snow falls in the north. But three-quarters of the people live in the south. Since the 1930s, the state has built one of the largest systems of dams, aqueducts, pumps and canals in the world to move water from north to south.
The linchpin is the delta, a vast network of sloughs and marshes where the state's two largest rivers — the Sacramento and the San Joaquin — meet before flowing to San Francisco Bay.
On Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's top water official, Lester Snow, said California needs to fix the delta by building new off-stream reservoirs and finding new ways to move water, which could include a so-called "Peripheral Canal" around the delta, a plan shot down by state voters in 1982.
Environmentalists, however, said that the decision will help restore a balance that considers the health of fisheries — along with helping corporate agribusiness to grow water-intensive crops like cotton and alfalfa in arid areas.
Obegi noted that a 2005 study by Snow's department, the State Department of Water Resources, found that more conservation, including drip irrigation and low-flush toilets, along with using reclaimed wastewater and more underground storage, could provide the same amount of water as is drawn every year from the delta.
"This is heralding in a new era of water management. Change is difficult. But it is necessary," Obegi said.
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