In a move that an environmental group says weakens a key policy protecting salmon and compromises the water quality of the San Francisco Bay-Delta, the Bush administration has quietly withdrawn an appeal of a court ruling that favored powerful Central Valley farming interests.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said the action, taken late last week by the U.S. Department of the Interior, will likely result in less water to support fish and more water flowing to growers in Fresno and Kings counties.
Further, the group warns that the move signals the administration's intent to "abandon" the CalFed program, a joint governmental effort to fairly distribute water to urban users, wildlife and agriculture.
"What looks on the face to be a very simple fight between environmentalists and a bunch of farmers very rapidly now has implications for the rest of the state," said Barry Nelson, an NRDC policy analyst. "If the feds walk away from the CalFed program, they are guaranteeing [more] litigation on a whole range of issues."
The decision by the Department of Interior is a break from a policy set under the Clinton administration.
Officials with the Department of the Interior and other water agencies disagree with the NRDC, and say dropping the appeal won't hurt fish. They add that it will eventually help streamline the way the CalFed program operates.
"Those that say it's a rollback or loss [for fish], well, I think the facts will tell you something different," said Bennett W. Raley, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for water and science. "The failure to appeal doesn't change anything. We're redoing the policy. Someone is crying wolf a little prematurely."
Raley was referring to the policy that requires 800,000 acre-feet of water to flow from Northern California rivers to the delta each year, rather than be diverted into the extensive system that reroutes water to farmers and cities.
At the heart of the dispute is a complex set of rules determining how the 800,000 acre-feet are counted.
The Westlands Water District, in Fresno and Kings counties, contended that the rules allowed well over the required amount to flow to the delta--at the expense of farmers.
The district sued and, in February, U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger ruled in its favor, determining that some of the water that went to the delta wasn't being counted as part of the 800,000 acre-feet.
The NRDC and the Interior Department appealed on the basis that under the judge's ruling, water that was going to farmers would actually be counted as going to the delta.
The NRDC is still appealing the decision, but Raley said the Interior Department will instead concentrate on rewriting the rules to make them more equitable.
"The judge's ruling doesn't in any way, shape or form provide a basis for the department to do anything less than provide 800,000 acre-feet of water for the delta," said Raley.
Researchers have long held that keeping the San Francisco Bay healthy depends on keeping a strong flow of fresh water running into the bay through the delta.
For decades, much of that water was diverted before it reached the bay. As a result, salmon couldn't swim out to sea, wetlands went dry and the bay's water quality dropped.
The NRDC suspects that the revised rules will result in the bay's receiving, at best, 60% to 70% of the amount needed.
Nelson said that if the water allocated under the Interior Department's revised rules isn't enough to sustain delta water quality and the salmon, the deficit will have to be made up by other users, quite possibly urban customers in Southern California.
The main provider of water for much of the Los Angeles region--the Metropolitan Water District--imported 1.3 million acre-feet of water from Northern California last year.
Timothy Quinn, a vice president with the MWD, said that Westlands Water District has long been known as one of the most aggressive districts in the state. But he doesn't think the Interior Department's decision will jeopardize the CalFed program or any of the water Southern California receives through the CalFed process.
"This isn't the end of the world; it's just one of 1,000 things we have to adapt to," said Quinn. "The lawsuits are a mess. The fish are recovering because of the CalFed process."