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Keep Water Project Afloat

September 03, 2002

The Bush administration's decision to quit its appeal of a lawsuit pitting farmers against the environment in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta threatens to revive some of California's most bitter water battles. And there's concern that the action signals a waning of federal support for Cal-Fed, the program to end those old wars and to restore the environment of the two rivers' delta and San Francisco Bay.

An Interior Department official says nothing's really changed and the administration remains committed to Cal-Fed, the $8.5-billion cooperative state-federal program to revitalize the delta. But considering the Bush record on the environment--reciting platitudes while unraveling good policy--it's prudent to remain skeptical. The department and its U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will have to back up those assurances with actions.

The dispute started when the giant Westlands Water District sued the Interior Department over interpretation of a 1992 law that ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to dedicate 800,000 acre-feet of water annually from its Central Valley Project to environmental protection, primarily for the health of fish in the bay-delta system.

Westlands claimed the criteria the bureau used actually resulted in diverting 1.1 million acre-feet for the fish, cutting into the farm district's allocation. (One acre-foot meets the household needs of two families a year). A federal judge in Fresno ruled in favor of Westlands. The Clinton administration and the Natural Resources Defense Council appealed, seeking to uphold the rule.

Now the Bush administration has dropped the appeal. Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett W. Raley says the formula will be simplified. The fish will get their 800,000 acre-feet, he added. But Barry Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council says the fish may actually lose 300,000 acre-feet if the accounting system is changed.

The allocation is a key provision of Cal-Fed, which is designed to restore environments damaged by years of pumping water from the delta and to stabilize water deliveries to farmers and Southern California homes.

If Cal-Fed is allowed to unravel after years of negotiation and delicate compromise, the state will fall back into water warfare and allocation of supplies by the courts. With water supplies shrinking everywhere, such a war is unaffordable.

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