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Minnow-protection ruling leaves water supply uncertain

There has never been more uncertainty about the future of water supplies from the California state and federal water projects.

And not only farmers, but cities south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could also face critical shortages in the wake of a federal judge's criteria for pumping water through the turnbuckle of the water supply for 25 million Californians and three million acres of farmland.

There is so much doubt and ambiguity about next season's state water supply that one producer jokingly said there should have been metal detectors at the exits for a recent packed-house meeting of Westlands Water District farmers. The detectors could have identified sharp objects on producers leaving the meeting so they would not harm themselves after being told they could receive as little as 10 percent of their federally promised water supply in 2008. This is due to a federal court judge's ruling limiting pumping from the state and federal water project pumps in the Delta, in order to protect an endangered minnow.

In an average year, the giant pumps move about six million acre feet of water from Northern California rivers and dams south from the Delta.

Water for the next growing season is never a certainty this time of year, but growers who rely on state or federal water projects have at least a range of what water they might expect, based on fall reservoir levels balanced against next year's possible wet or dry weather scenarios.

Today, state and federal project lakes are well below seasonal averages. This means it will likely take above average rainfall or snowfall to refill them.

For example, the 2-million-acre-foot capacity San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos, Calif., is about a fourth full, which is about 50 percent of the historical average for this time of year.

Tom Birmingham, Westlands general manager, told farmers at the Five Points meeting that San Luis will likely not be refilled this winter. Birmingham is not privy to a long-range weather forecast indicating another short-water year like 2007. However, he is certain that the judge in the minnow-protection case has set a management criteria for the Delta pumps to protect a one-year life span fish that virtually assures a short-water year if not a legally-mandated drought.

This management criterion is a weekly, moving target bolstered by more aggressive smelt population monitoring. This means that the pumps can be turned off and on like a light switch on a weekly basis. It has happened before. Not six weeks ago, the California Department of Water Resources shut down its pumping station for 10 days to keep from killing minnows in the pump, fearful that the judge might intervene.

The resulting chaos among water users sent auction prices for available, so-called surplus water skyrocketing to $500 or more per acre foot.

The 10-day shutoff also posed a threat to the water supplies of cities in the East Bay. The reservoir was being drained so quickly because the shutoff came at the height of the irrigation season. The Bureau of Reclamation limited the amount of water that could be withdrawn to protect the integrity of the 300-foot high San Luis dam, the fourth largest embankment dam in the U.S.

The only assurance farmers received from Westlands management and board, was that regardless of how much or how little water is delivered to them, it will cost more — significantly more.

Jean Sagouspe, Los Banos, Calif., producer and Westlands board president, told producers concerning the smelt ruling, “There will be a lot less water (in 2008) that will cost you more. That is a fact. The district will do its best, but all solutions (to this water crisis) have costs associated with them.”

And, he added, “some of us in this room will not able to afford” the higher water costs.

He said the district staff is estimating water costs based on various scenarios to give growers some benchmarks to plan for 2008.

Five Points, Calif., producer Mark Borba's fear is that next year he'll find another new attack by environmentalists who use the “adaptive management” outlined by the judge to drive water deliveries down to 10 percent, leaving his crops in the field without a water supply.

In the wake of the fish ruling, “Everyone is scrambling to do whatever it takes to stay in business,” said Ted Sheely, Westlands director since 1999. Sheely has farmed on the West side for more than 25 years.

“It is the worst I have seen,” said Sheely. “Drought years scared me. This situation terrifies me. We spent a fortune drilling wells, developing groundwater in the droughts to keep us farming. With this thing we have to rely on the courts and attorneys to keep us in business.”

Sheely said there are producers with permanent crops who have only surface water supplies and no wells. With severe cutbacks, trees and vines could die. There are others who are growing only cotton and may not be able to grow cotton with water costs that Sheely projects could easily be $100 to $150 per acre feet. He said the cost is based on early water delivery scenarios following the ruling. This growing season Sheely paid $80 for district water and it was a short-water year.

“This is a statewide crisis,” said Fred Starrh, Shafter, Calif., farmer and president of the Kern County Water Agency. “This misguided attempt to protect the Delta smelt will not guarantee its survival, but will severely impact people, farms and businesses in California.”

The ruling, according to Laura King Moon, assistant General manager, State Water Contractors (SWC), is “an unprecedented cutback in our state water supply, forcing local water agencies to identify backup water sources. Never in California's history have we had a court impose such a massive reduction in water use.”

Judge Oliver Wanger's ruling in late August came in a lawsuit filed by radical environmental groups challenging Delta smelt biological studies to protect the endangered species. Wanger agreed with the environmentalists and set acceptable negative water flows at the pumps to protect the minnow and set in place a more aggressive smelt monitoring effort to count threatened smelt.

This plan will be in effect from December until June, after which Wanger expects to receive the government's new biological plan to protect the minnow.

The 10 percent to 45 percent water delivery range figures came from Jim Snow, Westlands deputy general manager of operations. The 45 percent is based on a normal water/snow pack year; the 10 percent is based on a dry year.

Birmingham pledged to find sources of additional water to replace that lost from reduced Delta pumping. This could come from paying growers to dump well water into the district's canal system or from purchases from other water districts that have guaranteed water rights from the San Joaquin River system.

He said the district will not purchase water from north of the Delta as it has in the past because there are no guarantees it can be pushed through the Delta pumps. This season Westlands agreed to buy surplus water from Northern California water districts, but had to back out of the deals because it could not be moved through the pumps after the 10-day shutdown.

Purchasing surplus water has become a way of life for the district as well as individual farmers, with gradually declining deliveries over the years, primarily for environmental reasons.

However, the pressure to find additional water has never been greater because an increasingly larger acreage in Westlands is in permanent crops. At last report, more than 100,000 of the district 600,000 planted acres were in permanent crops.

“You can fallow row crop ground. You cannot not irrigate permanent crops,” he said. There are Westlands growers who have wells available to supply water to crops. Many were drilled during drought years and used only when surface supplies are short. Usually, this water is poorer quality than district water and is often mixed with district irrigation water for use to irrigate crops sensitive to boron and other harmful elements in the well water.

However, the ability to put that water into Westlands canals is limited due to water quality standards. Some cities draw water from the system, and the agricultural wells must meet drinking water quality standards to be incorporated into the Westlands system.

Until now it has been more expensive to pump water for crops than to use surface water. However, in 2008 with increased costs of Westlands deliveries, it may actually be cheaper to pump.

The judge's ruling, though not unexpected, still sent shockwaves through not only rural areas, but California cities as well.

Many cities in the Bay Areas, Central California and Southern California rely on water pumped through the Delta. There has been talk of possible urban rationing if pumps are shut down for an extended period of time.

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