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Judge sides with smelt; California water supplies in question

FRESNO, August 31, 2007, Central Valley Business Times

•  Ruling would restrict pumping to 25 Million Californians

•  ‘A devastating blow to our water supply system’

A U.S. District court judge late Friday agreed with environmentalists’ claims that the tiny Delta smelt is endangered by current pumping levels of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, the vast water systems that serve about 25 million Californians.

If it survives expected appeals, the ruling would restrict water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Bay Area, the Central Valley and Southern California.

"Judge Oliver Wanger's decision is a devastating blow to our water supply system and state economy,” says Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a written statement Friday night. "This decision is also going to have a devastating impact on the state's economy and the 25 million Californians who depend on Delta water.”

The populations of the tiny, minnow-like Delta smelt have declined dramatically in recent years. Environmentalists say one reason is that they are sucked into the giant pumps of the two water delivery systems and killed.

But water agencies contend the declining populations could be due to a myriad of other reasons.

"Today's ruling is an unprecedented cutback in our statewide water supply, forcing local water agencies to scramble to identify back up water sources and find ways to lessen direct impacts on their customers," says Laura King Moon, executive director of State Water Contractors, a non-profit association of 27 public agencies.

"Never, in California's history, have we had a court impose such a massive reduction in the water use - and it is not clear that even this extraordinary action will save the Delta smelt given all the other threats to its existence," she says.

In May, Mr. Wanger ruled that an assessment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about how endangered the smelt really are was flawed and required rewriting.

"The Delta smelt is undisputedly in jeopardy as to its survival and recovery,” Mr. Wanger wrote in that opinion.

Mr. Schwarzenegger says the latest opinion underscores the need to invest in a better water conveyance system.

“Following today's ruling, there can be no doubt, we need more water storage and greater conservation efforts to meet the needs of our growing population, respond to the challenge climate change presents and meet the requirements of what the court has imposed,” the governor says.

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