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California reels from save-the-minnow ruling

California is shaking again, but earthquakes are not to blame this time for people reeling and rolling.

The shaking is from knocking knees and more recently, forehead slaps of disbelief from the Californians who are responsible for delivering drinking water to 25 million of their fellow countrymen and irrigation water to three million acres of some of the most productive farmland in the world.

Barring unprecedented heavy fall rains, 2007 will go down as one of the driest weather years on record, and was possibly made even drier by a federal district court judge trying to save endangered minnows.

Islands are poking out of half-full reservoirs like creatures from the deep not seen for decades.

Lakes are so low — boat launch ramps are longer than the driveway to Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion.

Water contractors are as thrilled as a kid in a candy store at the sight of a lone late summer thunderhead over the Sierra Nevada. They close their eyes and wish, as they would on a shooting star, that that thunderstorm is a sign winter will come early — very, very early.

Since January, California has been in an undisputable drought. No significant relief was expected after early spring because as the song line goes — “It never rains in Southern California.”

All Californians could do after one of the lowest snow packs in years was wait for fall and winter to see if God would end the one-year drought that followed one of the wettest years on record, 2006. That day of reckoning is at hand, with fall just around the corner and the historical rainy season kickoff day of Thanksgiving less than three months away.

Those knocking knees are now being accompanied by the forehead slaps of disbelief at the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno, which could restrict water deliveries from the northern to the southern two-thirds of the state — if there is water to deliver — for six months from December until June to save an endangered minnow, the Delta smelt, a species that grows to no more than three inches and never lives longer than a year under ideal conditions.

Wanger ruled pressure from the massive pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (that move water from Northern California to 25 million Californians and three million acres of farmland) endangers the tiny minnow. He has given the state 60 days to come up with a better biological plan to save the smelt than what has been offered so far. In the meantime, there will be no pumping — as the smelt is in danger of being sucked into the two pumping stations operated by the federal and state governments.

Those who want to preserve the smelt say the minnow is a benchmark for the ecological health of the Delta. It apparently has no other benefit to mankind. No one has said it is the only indicator of Delta ecological health.

The judge's ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Natural Resources Defense Council and other so-called environmental organizations which claim the pumps are threatening the endangered species.

Defendants, the State Water Project, the federal Central Valley Project, farmers and others, agree the smelt is endangered. However, they contend the pumps only account for 5 percent to 15 percent of the causes that are affecting the smelt population. Other factors are having greater impacts on the smelt numbers. Defendants contend loss of food supplies and the introduction of foreign plant and fish species into the Delta have dramatically altered the smelt's environment and put it at risk. Criminal toxic chemical dumping into the Delta has killed fish. Defendants also contend sewage is impacting the health of the Delta. In addition, the lack of fish screens on pumps in the Delta is impacting the smelt.

But Judge Wanger did not buy any of those arguments.

In the past, the pumping has been briefly stopped, and water deliveries have also been reduced to protect fish. But the possibility of a longer shutdown is sending ripples of anxiety throughout the state.

Although Wanger's ruling is a one-year deal, it could have a far reaching impact in the wake of the 2007 drought. If there is no significant rain and snowfall this fall, and if that continues into the winter and even early spring, the overall water supply will not be enough to take care of Wanger's minnow and the rest of California.

San Joaquin Valley farmers receiving water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will see their 2008 supplies cut by as much as 50 percent or a reduction in deliveries by as much as 500,000 acre-feet via Wanger's ruling, according to some experts. This would make Wanger's ruling one of the largest single court-ordered reductions in California water history.

“We knew the judge was going to take away some of our water, but we were holding out hope that he would have given more time to the scientists to continue working toward a science-based solution,” said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority. The authority is a group of 32 water districts that supplies water to farmers covering more than 2 million acres.

“Every farmer in the 3 million acres receiving water through the Delta pumps, and 25 million residents in the Bay and Los Angeles, is at immediate risk resulting from less water flowing to farms, homes and businesses next year,” Nelson added.

Reservoirs in the two water systems are dramatically low, most at half of less of capacity now, far below the average for this time of year. The refilling process must begin this fall either from rainfall or releases upstream.

For example, there are less than 500,000 acre feet in the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos. This is about 150,000 acres feet below the average for this time of year for the reservoir with 2 million acre feet of storage capacity. The story is the same for the other major reservoirs in the system.

“This is the most dramatic cut ever to California water supplies,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents more than 400 agencies delivering 90 percent of the state's water. “It is the most significant decision ever made in the implementation of either the state or federal Endangered Species Act. It is the biggest impact anywhere, nationwide.”

Jerry Johns, deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources, said the ruling was not as severe as environmentalists wanted, but it was harsh. It will make it difficult to move sold and bought water around the state if the Delta pumps are shut down. Selling and buying water has become far more common in recent years because of a growing population and dwindling water supplies due to weather or changing environmental laws which takes water from people for environmental uses. Much of this water is bought from Northern California, above the Delta pumps.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the judge's decision “further proof that our water system is broken, unreliable and in crisis … a devastating blow to our water system and state economy.” He used the decision to once again sell his proposed $5.9 billion comprehensive water plan, which includes $1 billion for Delta restoration and a new system for diverting around the Delta.

Urban water agencies in both the Bay Area and Southern California warned that because of Wanger's ruling that there could be water rationing.

“Even though the judge's ruling applies only to next year, it is still devastating news for our farmers,” Nelson said. “Thousands of acres of orchard and vine crops that represent a long-term investment by farmers are in jeopardy. What happens if a farmer is not able to secure a water source to irrigate his crops? It is possible that these crops could dry up and die.”

Annual water requirements for permanent crops, including almonds, grapes, pistachios and others in the CVP south of Delta farming region total 500,000 acre-feet or more. The court-mandated reduction in CVP deliveries to farmers means less water for other crops such as lettuce, tomatoes and many other fruit and vegetable crops. Those crops could potentially be fallowed to meet the water needs of permanent crops. A similar scenario would be felt in the entire south of Delta CVP service area.

Nelson explained that the effects of taking water away from the farmers will also be felt in the rural communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley West Side.

“Unemployment will go up if farming is cut back because of a lack of water,” he said.

A U.S. Census Bureau study recently listed Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Kern, Merced and Madera as counties with the highest percentage of residents living below the poverty line in California.

“It's ironic and tragic that on the heels of this study that these water cutbacks are taking place,” insisted Nelson. “These rural communities rely on their local farms for their financial survival.

“Any cut in the irrigation supply to these farms will continue to damage these communities and they simply can't afford it.”

The environmental organizations filing the earlier suit ask for a reduction in 2008 deliveries to as low as zero percent. Other plans submitted by state and federal agencies that oversee the pumping operations had suggested deliveries from 5 percent to 55 percent of contracts.

“In the end, California's rural communities lose, farmers lose and the Delta smelt loses because science pointing to the real problems affecting the smelt populations is being ignored,” claimed B.J. Miller, a consulting engineer who has studied the Delta for years.

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