A Superior Court judge has refused to back down from a ruling that in two months could virtually shut down the State Water Project, stopping the flow of Northern California water to Central Valley farms and 17 million Southern Californians.
Over the objections of water officials, Alameda County Judge Frank Roesch this week reasserted a preliminary March ruling in which he found that the California Department of Water Resources had not obtained the proper state environmental permits to operate the huge pumps that siphon water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, in the process killing threatened and endangered fish.
The judge has given the department 60 days from the issuance of his final order to comply with the California Endangered Species Act, or he will turn off the pumps.
Water officials have warned that a prolonged pumping shutdown would wreak havoc on the California economy and slash water deliveries to urban Southern California at a time when the region is experiencing what is on track to be the driest year on record.
Water department Director Lester Snow said his agency would appeal the decision.
"The 60-day clock starts ticking on what would be a devastating blow to the state's water system," he said.
In the meantime, his agency is asking the state Department of Fish and Game to allow fish to be killed at the Harvey O. Banks Delta Pumping Plant, based on existing federal environmental permits. The pumps have long been a focal point of concern over the effect of huge water diversions from the delta, which is part of the largest estuary on the West Coast and has been severely degraded by farming, contaminants and water deliveries that have altered its natural tidal rhythms.
The tiny native delta smelt, salmon and introduced sport fish have all been in steep decline. Recent years have brought an especially sharp drop in the population of smelt, which some scientists believe is headed for extinction.
The escalating conflict between delta water deliveries and environmental protection is spurring a reexamination of whether the state should continue to use the sprawling delta northeast of San Francisco as the hub of its giant plumbing system or find some other ways of ferrying water between north and south.
In the past the pumping has been briefly stopped, and water deliveries have also been reduced, to protect fish. But the possibility of a longer shutdown is sending ripples of anxiety throughout the State Water Project, which supplies about two out of three Californians, as well as irrigation water for 750,000 acres of farm land.
Southern California water officials have said they have enough water in storage to avoid immediate rationing.
But in court declarations, managers for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California warned that a shutdown of more than a year would empty their reservoirs, halt groundwater recharge programs and ultimately force mandatory rationing in the region.
Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, which filed the suit in which Roesch ruled, said it was unlikely the pumps would be turned off for long. "There's not a scare scenario here," he insisted.
He argued that the water department could pursue a different tack to obtain a permit under the state Endangered Species Act to kill fish at the pumps. But, he said, that would probably involve reducing pumping levels to offset environmental harm caused by the water operation.
However, state officials have said that permit process could take as long as 18 months.