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Warning From Water Districts

Higher costs could result from land restrictions proposed to aid imperiled species, agencies say. Fish and Wildlife downplays threat.

October 31, 2000|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plans to designate wide swaths of land as critical habitat for imperiled species could spell far higher costs to bring imported water to Southern California consumers, say the Orange County Water District and 13 other area water suppliers.

"Inevitably, these designations will have a serious, adverse impact on the state's ability to satisfy the water needs of a growing population," wrote William R. Mills Jr., chairman of the Orange County district and the Assn. of Ground Water Agencies in a letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt earlier this month.

Mills wrote that pending critical habitat designations of 478,000 acres for the arroyo southwestern toad and 5.4 million acres for the California red-legged frog will make it more difficult to treat, manage, deliver and recharge ground water. Imported water from the Colorado River and Northern California costs three times as much as local water.

Any activity on federally regulated land that is designated as critical habitat--crucial to an endangered or threatened species survival--must be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

OCWD sells water wholesale to 20 cities and agencies that provide drinking water to 2.2 million people in the northern and central parts of the county. About 75% of that water is drawn from centuries-old underground aquifers, while the remainder is imported. The aquifers are recharged by 14 percolation ponds, which collect water from the Santa Ana River and allow it to filter naturally into the ground.

However, sediment, clay and the skeletons of microscopic organisms build up, creating a thick, impervious layer that must be scraped off once a year. Water officials say the bulldozing needed to maintain the ponds may not be allowed if the land is included in a critical habitat designation.

Fish and Wildlife officials disagree, saying critical habitat offers little extra protection. However, critical habitat is a tenet of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the service was forced to designate critical habitat for both the toad and the frog because of lawsuits by an environmental group.

Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for the service's Carlsbad office, had not seen the letter and could not comment on it Monday.

However, she said the service already is being consulted if an endangered or threatened species could be disturbed by an activity on federal land, requiring a federal permit or receiving federal funding. Critical habitat only results in an extra consultation if there is unoccupied habitat.

Under the law, the federal agency could halt a project that destroys critical habitat, but that has happened in less than than 1% of such cases nationally, Hendron said. The agency generally works with landowners to find alternatives.

The development community strongly disagrees, contending that the designations will be disastrous for the booming economy.

"We live in a semiarid environment and we have a growing population," said Laer Pearce, executive director of the Coalition for Habitat Conservation, which represents the Irvine Co., Rancho Mission Viejo Co and others. "We have to be very careful to protect local water sources. Critical habitat jeopardizes local sources."

Environmentalists say the letter is another scare tactic, the latest in a series of studies and letters from developers predicting doom.

"Developers are grasping at straws to evade the Endangered Species Act," said Andrew Wetzler, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Los Angeles office. "All a critical habitat designation does is say to affected agencies that they need to check in with the Fish and Wildlife Service before destroying critical habitat. The fact that developers are so unwilling to do that should give people a clue about how much critical habitat is being destroyed."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Water Source vs. Habitat

Local water agencies across Southern California say that designating large parcels of land as critical habitat for imperiled species will have a costly impact on local water supplies. Agencies worry they'll be unable to maintain spreading basins within those habitat areas. The basins replenish ground water supplies, which are tapped by municipal water wells. Agencies say they would have to rely on more expensive water imported from the Colorado River and Northern California.

RECHARGING GROUND WATER:

1. Water is diverted from river

2. Flows into earthen basins

3. 6 to 8 feet of water sinks into the ground per day, replenishes aquifer

4. Water is pumped up for municipal use

MAINTENANCE:

OCWD's 14 basins are scraped annually to remove a concrete-like layer that inhibits water percolation.

1. Diversion is stopped. Basin dries for about a week

2. One-inch layer of "crust"--silt, clay and skeletons of microscopic organisms--is scraped from bottom of basin

3. Basin is refilled, which takes about two weeks

Source: Assn. of Ground Water Agencies, Orange County Water District

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