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California Can't Have it All: There's Not Enough Water to Support Farmers, Cities and the Environment

Nothing can be done in California that will keep its farms and big cities thriving at today's levels and also keep the fish and the Delta alive. So what do we do?

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But even as the water bosses push a plan that would let them take more from the Delta than they have in any year but 2005, federal and state agencies independently released four separate warnings that the pumping should be further reduced to prevent a total fish collapse. In June, federal Environmental Protection Agency biologists bluntly noted that, in the face of the fish declines, "significantly increasing exports out of a stressed Delta is the wrong policy."

In August, the normally timid State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees water rights, surprised many people with a bold recommendation that fully 75 percent of the water that flows into the Delta be allowed to flow out, to keep fish populations healthy.

Then, in September, the state Department of Fish and Game unambiguously concluded that "current Delta water flows for environmental resources are not adequate to maintain, recover, or restore the functions and processes that support native Delta fish."

And later that month, a team of biologists with the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that the "substantial reductions in Delta outflow" that would come with the Peripheral Canal "have not been adequately evaluated" as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. More ominously, they warned that increases in pumping over current levels "are likely to increase the risk that Delta smelt will become extinct." That warning irked Jason Peltier. During a Legislature water committee hearing in November, he railed against what he called "a little weak paper written by some scientists."

"If we simply just sit back and say, 'What do you think, mid-level biologists?' " Peltier groused, "we're going nowhere."

Peltier also invoked what is now a favored theme among the farm and urban water agencies that want to increase pumping. The causes of the Delta fish decline are clouded by "great scientific uncertainty," he said. "There's great difference of opinion about the science." But in fact, the federal biologists who wrote that paper had pointedly noted that the data from the computer model they used -- the standard go-to model for the Delta -- "clearly indicate that adverse affects would likely occur. Hence, this is not a case of simple uncertainty about the science."

In many ways, the negotiations over the Bay Delta Conservation Plan have become their own morass of dysfunction. In late November, when the 2,517-page draft was released to the public, many of the most critical components of the plan still had not been completed. And the details may have already become moot anyway.

One day earlier, Westlands, elaborating on the sentiments Tom Birmingham expressed to David Hayes in D.C., formally announced that it was pulling out of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. And a day after the draft plan was released, the San Luis-Delta Mendota Water Authority, a broad coalition that includes 28 water agencies in addition to Westlands, announced that it was also withdrawing. With that, half of the funding that had been pledged for the latest heralded effort to fix the Delta disappeared.

When the Legislature passed the water package at Schwarzenegger's insistence in 2009, it again invoked the idea of balance in the Delta, this time as a pair of "co-equal goals" of "providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem."

That notion of balance may, however, simply be a refusal to confront the Delta's fundamental problem. The recent drumbeat of warnings from federal and state agencies makes it clear that the Delta is on the brink of ecological catastrophe. Disaster can't be avoided without a radical rethinking of much of the California image -- particularly the huge, trademark agricultural enterprise in the Central Valley, by far the biggest user of the Delta's water. If 75 percent of the water that flows into the Delta is earmarked for fish, as the Water Resources Control Board recommended, deliveries to San Joaquin Valley farms and cities in Southern California have to be reduced an additional 25 percent from current levels, and deliveries to farms in the Sacramento Valley, to the north, must be cut by as much as 67 percent.

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