U.S. Water News Online
SACRAMENTO -- In a decision that could cripple water
deliveries to California farms and cities, a judge has ordered the
state to halt pumping water out of the delta within 60 days unless it
complies with environmental laws that protect endangered fish.
State water officials said they can't meet the short deadline and
hope to persuade the court to reconsider cutting off water to the San
Francisco Bay area, Central Valley and Southern California.
"We're perplexed by the court's ruling," state Department of Water
Resources Director Lester Snow said in a conference call with
reporters. "The way that would harm the economy is not in the best
interests of anyone."
The ruling by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch
found that the Department of Water Resources lacks the proper
authority to run a key station that pumps water from the delta into
the California Aqueduct.
Specifically, Roesch said the water agency should apply for
permits that would allow it to kill spring and winter runs of salmon
and Delta smelt, which are protected under the California Endangered
The ruling pleased sport fishing groups that have long criticized
the state's operation of the enormous pumps, which suck in and kill
salmon and other fish.
"It's certainly an earthshaking decision," said Bill Jennings,
executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection
Alliance, which had sued the state.
At issue is the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant west of Stockton,
which funnels 10,688 cubic feet per second of delta water through 11
pumps into the 444-mile long aqueduct. The heart of the State Water
Project, the pumping station sucks in and kills significant
quantities of fish.
Water for more than 23 million Californians and 750,000 acres of
farmland passes through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The decision also has implications for federal water deliveries in
the Central Valley. About 5 percent of water that is part of the
federal Central Valley Project flows through the Banks pumping
"There is a coordinated operation between the two projects. We'll
have to analyze the indirect effects," said Thomas Birmingham,
general manager of the Westlands Water District, which supplies water
to about 600,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno and Kings
The order to shut down the pumps could have severe economic
consequences. Snow said water deliveries have a $300 billion effect
on the state's economy.
"That's a lot of farm jobs, industrial jobs and homes in the Bay
area, Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley," Snow said.
Fiona Hutton, a spokeswoman for the State Water Contractors
Association, said the case illustrates the vulnerability of the
delta, a fragile ecosystem that is the heart of the state's water
The Department of Water Resources had argued in court that its
pumping operations were authorized by a series of agreements struck
over the past 20 years and by a 1997 state law. Snow reiterated that
In his 34-page ruling, Roesch said those agreements "do not
qualify as the carte-blanche authorization of incidental take" at the
plant for all species of endangered fish.
Under the judge's ruling, the California Department of Fish and
Game would have to approve environmental permits for the state to
operate the pumps.
Those permits would require the state to minimize fish kills and
could lead to a change in how much water is sent through the pumps
and when much of the pumping would occur. But state wildlife
officials said 60 days is not enough time to sort through the
complicated issues involving endangered species.
Instead, the state plans to ask the judge for more time so
officials can continue working on a multi-species habitat
conservation plan for the entire delta. That plan is expected to be
finished by year's end, said state Fish and Game Director Ryan
"We need to have a response that deals with the long-term health
of the delta," he said.
The state has 15 days to file its request for the judge to
reconsider his ruling. Pumping will continue while the legal debate
Environmentalists have argued that the Department of Water
Resources pumps too heavily during the winter months. They say that
has led to declining populations of the Delta smelt because female
fish that are sucked into the pumps die before their eggs are
The smelt, which average 3 inches long, are considered a key
indicator of the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Just 400 smelt were killed in the pumps last year, less than 1
percent of the population, said Jerry Johns, deputy director of the
state water department. He said salmon runs in the delta are about
equal to their levels in the 1950s.
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