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Delta water exports could be reduced by up to 50 percent under new federal biological opinion

State Water Project (SWP) deliveries throughout California could be permanently reduced by up to 50 percent under a new Delta smelt Biological Opinion issued on Dec.15.

Water deliveries to cities, farms, and businesses throughout much of the state will be reduced about 20 to 30 percent on average, but cuts could be even greater under certain hydrologic conditions.

The opinion, released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will continue reductions in SWP and federal Central Valley Project Delta water exports in effect since a December 2007 federal court order to protect Delta smelt.

Department of Water Resources (DWR) Director Lester Snow issued the following statement in response to the opinion:

“DWR has long been committed to implementing effective environmental protections, as well as ensuring reliable water supplies for all Californians. But I am concerned that this new Biological Opinion fails to apply a comprehensive approach in dealing with at-risk fish species in the Delta.

We know there are many stressors causing havoc in the Delta – including toxic pollutants, invasive species, climate impacts, power plant operations, illegal diversions and overall loss of habitat and food.

Today’s action by the federal government looks only to the water projects rather than having a complete view of all causes for Delta fish decline.

We expect that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will seek additional clarification on the proposed fall actions in the Biological Opinion. These actions would have the most severe reductions in State Water Project water exports in dry years, when the water is needed most.

A long-term approach for the conservation of all at-risk fish species in the Delta, like that being developed under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is clearly our best and most effective solution to reduce the conflicts between maintaining a reliable water supply and restoring the Delta ecosystem.

The crisis in the Delta is having real-time impacts on California’s economy and must be addressed comprehensively. As Gov. Schwarzenegger has said, new storage, improved conveyance and increased water conservation are all necessary so that we may contribute to the conservation and recovery of the Delta as a whole,” Snow said.

The most recent scientific studies indicate that entrainment in SWP pumps is not the greatest factor in reducing Delta smelt population. The Biological Opinion also calls for increased reservoir releases in the fall of some years to reduce salinity. This may be in direct conflict with a Biological Opinion to protect salmon that is expected in March 2009.

Given California’s drought conditions, an agricultural water crisis, and various urban water cutbacks, California cannot afford further pumping restrictions without careful coordination.

Delta smelt are native to and found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The rapid decline of Delta smelt and other Delta fish indicate the Delta ecosystem is troubled.

Factors such as reduced food sources for fish due to invasive species, increased water temperatures due to rising air temperatures, and increased discharges of ammonia and other toxics are all implicated in adversely affecting the ecosystem.

However, the fishery agencies continue to only focus on actions related to pumping to solve this complex problem. Until more holistic approaches are taken to address all these environmental stressors, the delta ecosystem will continue to not improve.

The Delta smelt was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, and is currently being considered for listing under the “endangered” status. Actions to protect the fish have already resulted in pumping reductions and a complete 12-day halt in SWP exports during June 2007.

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