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State will resume pumping delta water

The operation, which had been stopped to protect fish, will be at reduced volumes for a week or more, meaning possible rationing.

June 09, 2007|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

State officials plan to resume pumping from one of California's key water sources this weekend, but at greatly reduced levels, prompting warnings that water rationing may be necessary if the pumping cutback continues for more than a few weeks.

The state last week shut down the massive pumps that draw water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect the delta smelt, a tiny native fish whose numbers have plunged in recent years.

Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said the agency would restart the pumping Sunday but "at bare minimum levels" to meet the needs of some Bay Area communities that are largely dependent on delta water.

The pumping will remain at no more than 10% of the normal volume for at least a few days, said agency Deputy Director Jerry Johns.

"We're going to just have to monitor this on a daily basis," Johns said, adding that the agency would determine at the end of next week if normal operations could resume.

Jill Duerig, general manager of an East Bay water agency that supplies nearly 200,000 people, said the start-up was critical.

"Without the minimal pumping from the delta announced today, we were looking at the possibility of a 40% to 55% mandatory water-use restriction in a portion of our service area and the possibility of compromised fire suppression in eastern Livermore," she said.

Pumping cannot return to full levels until the smelt move toward San Francisco Bay, out of the zone in which they can be fatally pulled into the state's powerful pumping operation in the south delta.

The pumps supply the State Water Project, which pipes water hundreds of miles to San Joaquin Valley farms, to Southern California and to some Northern California communities.

Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors, which represents project customers, warned that water users "must be aware that if pumping levels do not resume shortly, local water agencies will have to consider implementing stringent water use restrictions, including mandatory rationing."

Johns said Moon's statement was "probably accurate."

But a Southern California water official said he did not believe the pumping reductions would endure long enough to endanger the region's State Water Project deliveries this year.

"No one expects it to be a yearlong issue," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. "We don't see any scenario when you wind up with mandatory rationing in 2007."

If dry conditions persist into next year, however, and there are more pumping cutbacks then, 2008 could be "a very tough" year and rationing could be imposed in Southern California, he added.

The Sierra snowpack this spring is the lowest in several decades, and Los Angeles has received a record low amount of rainfall, prompting city and water agency officials to urge residents to conserve water.

The pumps were turned off May 31 after hundreds of smelt, which are protected by California's endangered species act, were killed at state and federal pumping operations in the south delta.

Years of government environmental efforts have failed to halt the delta's decline, and the populations of several kinds of fish have dropped dramatically in recent years under pressure from the pumps as well as from invasive species and toxic contaminants.

"There's a collision course between the estuary and ecosystem and business as usual," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, part of an environmental coalition that is suing the government over the fish declines.

"I think California is going to have to use less water from the delta," he said, pointing in particular to agribusiness customers of the government water projects.

"The water to urban Southern California is not the issue," Jennings said. It's "growing cotton in the desert on land that never should have been cultivated in the first place."

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bettina.boxall@latimes.com

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