There’s only one thing completely clear about a federal judge’s week-old order telling California water agencies to protect an endangered fish: Those of us who rely on Delta water – and that is nearly every Californian – are going to have to make do with less of it for at least the next year.
Just how much less will depend on the weather and the fish themselves.
At this point, experts are estimating that cuts in the amount of water being sent through the giant California Aqueduct pumps near Tracy will equal a 15 percent to 35 percent reduction in water allocations up and down the state. A worst-case scenario being floated claims that 2 million acre feet next year – enough water for more than 1 million acres of farmland or 8 million households – could be withheld.
Domestic users in Solano County, whose water also comes from wells and Lake Berryessa, will feel a pinch, but it won’t be nearly as tight as that endured by residents across the Carquinez Strait, where some cities rely on the Delta for up to 80 percent of their water supply.
Hardest hit will be agricultural users who rely completely on water from the Delta or the state Water Project, which will impose cuts systemwide.
The reductions were ordered last Friday by U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger, whose decision reflects the middle ground between environmentalists, who wanted even more water left behind to protect the Delta smelt, and water agencies that want to continue supplying water to 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of agriculture.
The cuts are to be enacted from late December, when the smelt begin to spawn, through June, when they are large enough to swim on their own, making them less vulnerable to being sucked into the pumps. A wet winter could help the problem considerably, so praying for rain could be helpful.
Certainly that is a more useful suggestion than the one Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came up with this week.
His administration officials called a press conference on Wednesday to push his earlier, failed proposal to build two reservoirs and revive the Peripheral Canal plan.
While developing more water storage and new ways to deliver it may yet prove to be valuable long-term solutions, neither will help the short-term crisis the state is currently facing.
Besides, the governor is putting the cart before the horse. His Delta Vision Blue-Ribbon Task Force is working feverishly to pull together by the end of this year a coherent and comprehensive plan for the Delta, one that will address water, flood and environmental issues in the long run. Taxpayers should be allowed to hear that report before being asked to commit already scarce resources.
But if the governor wants to do something, he might start prodding his own department of Fish and Game, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to complete a biological report showing the effects of pumping on the fast-dwindling Delta smelt.
That report, which is nearly a year overdue now, is the reason a federal judge had to step into the state’s water picture to begin with.
The governor might also want to start ratcheting up conservation efforts right now. Californians are generally water conscious, but we can do better. And we’re going to have to, if we expect to get through the coming winter and spring.