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Solution needed for water management

A judge’s ruling affects the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and pushes water into crisis

Capital Press 9/14/2007, Bob Krauter

It should be a surprise to no one that California is in the throes of another crisis. The state, never far from a malady of some sort, is headed for a water calamity in 2008 unless Mother Nature intervenes this winter. The dire water straits that California finds itself in are due to decades of neglect on water management. The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger on Aug. 31 on a fish vs. farmer lawsuit has put the exclamation point on the crisis facing managers of the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project.

Wanger has ordered state and federal officials to curtail exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the California Aqueduct next year to protect threatened delta smelt, a tiny fish.

The Delta is the main hub of the state's plumbing system that provides drinking water to 23 million Californians and 5 million acres of farmland.

The judge ordered water exports to be cut by nearly 2 million acre feet, as much as one-third of the 6 million acre feet of previously available water supply in a normal year.

At a news conference last week at the state capitol, state officials and water leaders described Wanger's decision as further evidence that the Delta is "in crisis" and they urged attention on a permanent delta fix.

"We have to move forward with a comprehensive solution. This won't be the last court case. It won't be the last disaster in the Delta unless we proceed in a very, very comprehensive fashion, dealing with conservation, storage, conveyance, wastewater recycling - the entire package," said Lester Snow, the state's water resources director. "There are no silver bullets for fixing this problem."

Delta smelt are not the only threatened species from the delta dilemma: Central Valley farmers, even before the court ruling, saw reduced water deliveries this summer because of severe drought conditions and a miserably light Sierra snowpack. Wanger's decision will only add greater uncertainty and risk to California farmers.

At the Capitol news conference, Steve Patricio, chairman of Western Growers, provided a glimpse of the pain that could be inflicted from reduced water deliveries in 2008. A pending Western Growers study predicts thousands of lost jobs, thousands of acres of fallowed fields and millions of dollars in economic losses.

"When farmers stop farming, when land stops being planted, and when orchards and vineyards die, farmworkers don't go to work," Patricio said.

Patricioand others made the point that water is not just important to fish and the environment, it is necessary for food, jobs and the state's economy. Agricultural groups have known for years that water management policies that merely divvy up existing water supplies for myriad uses are a recipe for disaster.

The state is now on a collision course in 2008 barring an exceptionally wet winter. Urban water agencies are already preparing for mandatory water conservation. Farmers are scaling back their planting intentions.

As Lester Snow said, what's needed is action on a plan to fix the delta and quick. Gov. Schwarzenegger has offered a $6 billion bond package of conveyance, storage, conservation, and ecosystem protections.

Some think that the solution is a peripheral canal or some combination of existing delta channels to move water from north to south while protecting the delta estuary. Others favor more conservation.

Whether it is Gov. Schwarzenegger's plan or some other, it is clear that the state's leaders must come to grips with the crisis facing California and forge ahead with a solution.

Bob Krauter is the California editor based in Sacramento. E-mail: bkrauter@capitalpress.com.
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