U.S. Water News Online
FRESNO, Calif. -- A federal judge has imposed limits on
water flows caused by massive pumps sending water from the San
Joaquin-Sacramento River delta to users around the state, saying the
pumps were drawing in and destroying a threatened fish.
U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger said pressure from the
pumps helped reverse the natural direction of water within the
estuary, damaging habitat and killing delta smelt, a fish that
experts say might be on the brink of extinction.
"The evidence is uncontradicted that these project operations move
the fish," Wanger said after hearing objections from defendants, who
had argued that other factors led to the fish's decline. "It happens,
and the law says something has to be done about it."
Under the ruling, limits would be put in place from the end of
December, when the fish are about to spawn, until June, when young
fish can move into areas with better habitat and more food.
Wanger also prescribed other measures, such as increased
monitoring of the fish's presence in its adult and juvenile stages at
several points in the delta.
Pumps operated by the Central Valley Project -- operated by the
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation -- send water to farmers in the
agricultural valley south of the delta. The State Water Project --
operated by the California Department of Water Resources -- delivers
the water to urban and rural water users as far south as Los Angeles.
The water serves more than 25 million Californians and thousands
of acres of crops.
In a year with an average amount of precipitation, about six
million acre feet of water is pumped from the delta, and up to
one-third of that could be lost under Wanger's order, said Jerry
Johns, DWR's deputy director.
Tim Quinn, who heads the Association of California Water Agencies,
said the ruling would have a serious impact in a state already coming
off a dry winter and spring. Some districts have already ordered
conservation measures and tapped into their water reserves, he said.
"A sober assessment of this says it's a very large deal," Quinn
said. "We are not only losing supply here, you are greatly
compromising the tools we have developed to deal with water
The Natural Resources Defense Council and four other environmental
groups had asked Wanger to demand an immediate change to the pumping
rate to reduce harm to the smelt until a new set of pumping
guidelines is expected next year.
Both sides agree the smelt population has declined precipitously.
The fish are protected under the California Endangered Species Act,
and their wellbeing is considered a measure of the environmental
health of the fragile delta ecosystem.
In May and June, state and federal agencies stopped or slowed down
their pumps in an effort to protect the smelt, after the population
reached an all-time low. But environmental groups want permanent
measures to improve conditions for the fish.
The decision was complex, and both sides said they needed time to
fully understand its impacts. But environmentalists largely welcomed
it as an improvement over current conditions.
"It's better than what there was before," said Trent Orr, an
attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, which was party
to the suit.
But they wanted more, said Orr, including measures that would have
protected habitat from encroaching salt from the San Francisco Bay in
Water contractors who get their supplies from the state and
federal projects said the measure would likely curtail their access
to water to the point where it would harm rural economies and hamper
urban water use.
"Rural communities have an economy based entirely on ag. ... This
is a huge hit on economies that are already depressed," said Dan
Nelson, executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water
Authority, which serves about one million acres of farmland as well
as the urban water district in Silicon Valley.
Nelson believed the decision would leave farmers with half the
water they were expecting in the coming year and urban users having
to make do with the minimum deliveries guaranteed by contract.
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