SACRAMENTO — A federal court order Friday will cut water exports to Southern California next year by up to a third in a bid to save a tiny fish teetering at the brink of extinction in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
In an 11-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno said that the delta smelt -- an endangered fish that exists only in the sprawling estuary that is the hub of the state's water system -- is in "imminent peril" without swift action.
Environmentalists said it remains to be seen if the ruling can help save the fish, whose population has plummeted as delta water exports have skyrocketed.
Kate Poole of the Natural Resources Defense Council called it a "step in the right direction." But whether the cutback in water exports is enough to save the smelt, she added, "is anybody's guess."
California's water managers, meanwhile, characterized Wanger's ruling as the largest court-ordered supply reduction in California history -- and bad news for anyone who turns on a tap.
"This court-ordered reduction will only place further hardship on water agencies throughout the state and ultimately consumers, businesses, farmers and the economy as a whole," said Laura King Moon of State Water Contractors, which represents 27 agencies around California.
Local water agencies will be forced to rely on other sources, such as groundwater, to ease the effect on customers, Moon said.
The first consequences could be felt in the Central Valley, where some farmers will have to forgo planting winter and spring crops, she said.
Urban residents will also need to conserve, Moon warned, and some areas eventually could be forced to ration.
The decision highlights the need to seek a comprehensive fix to the delta's continuing environmental woes, said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District. The delta smelt, the striped bass, longfin smelt and threadfin shad all have suffered declines there in recent decades.
Wanger's written order formalizes the details of a decision he announced after a weeklong hearing in August.
It requires state and federal water authorities to cut back water exports when the smelt -- adults, juveniles and the vulnerable larval stage that floats in the water -- venture near the pumps that supply the state's aqueducts.
Those pumps are so powerful that they reverse the flow of delta water. The smelt, only a couple of inches long and weak swimmers, can fall prey to those reversed currents and get gobbled up by the machinery.
The judge also ordered the state and federal agencies that operate the two big canals -- the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation -- to increase efforts to monitor whether the fish are being sucked into the pumps.
His ruling will remain in effect until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service releases a new biological opinion -- also ordered by Wanger -- spelling out long-term ways to save the smelt. The plan is slated for release in September.