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Gov. renews dam plan after ruling limits water

Legislators are urged to reconsider a facilities bond proposal he offered in January.

September 06, 2007|From the Associated Press

SACRAMENTO -- The Schwarzenegger administration Wednesday dusted off a failed dam proposal as a way to shore up California water supplies in light of a federal judge's ruling limiting shipments from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

But it seemed doubtful that the Democrat-controlled Legislature -- long opposed to new dams -- would go along in the waning days of its 2007 session.

At a Capitol news conference where he was flanked by city water leaders and farm and building industry representatives, state Secretary for Resources Mike Chrisman said an Aug. 31 ruling by a federal judge in Fresno could cut water flows from the delta by about one-third while doing little to protect the delta smelt, a small fish threatened with extinction.

The pumping limitations could leave farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and cities from the San Francisco Bay area to San Diego scrambling to cope with water shortages beginning in December, officials said.

Chrisman and Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow urged lawmakers to immediately reconsider a $5.9-billion water facilities bond plan that the governor offered in January. A Senate committee rejected the plan.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal includes two new dams and the study of a canal to route fresh water from the Sacramento River around the delta, in part to protect the smelt, a 2- to 3-inch-long, silver-colored fish.

But Assembly Democrats have shown little willingness to consider water facilities legislation this year. They refused Wednesday to go along with a procedural move by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) to advance his own $5-billion dam proposal, which includes $2 billion to help restore the delta.

Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), said Assembly lawmakers had not seen details of Perata's plan.

"When the Senate wants to discuss a deal on a water bond, then the legislative leaders need to sit down and do that," Maviglio said.

The court ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, came in response to a 2005 lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The suit complained that the massive pumps used by the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project were driving the delta smelt to extinction.

Those pumps are the hub of California's water delivery system, sending water to more than 25 million people in the San Francisco area, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Under the ruling, pumping limits will be put in place from Dec. 26, when the fish are about to spawn, until June, when young fish can move into areas with better habitat and more food.

Exactly which areas of California will be asked to conserve water to make up for the reduction in pumping and how much they'll be required to conserve is unknown, state officials said.

"It introduces a great deal of uncertainty into the water supply," Snow said.

Further complicating matters was the judge's instruction to state, federal and environmental officials to put his oral ruling into a written order by Oct. 22. Any decisions to appeal the pumping restrictions would come after the judge finalizes his order later this year, Snow said.

Tim Quinn, who heads the Assn. of California Water Agencies, said the ruling could cut delta water deliveries by 2 million acre-feet next year. That's enough water for more than 1-million acres of farmland or 8 million households, he said.

In Southern California, the likelihood of fewer exports from the delta has prompted the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to draft a contingency plan for reducing deliveries to nearly 17 million people, said assistant general manager Roger Patterson.

The ruling compounds an already dry year in which communities around the state have ordered conservation measures.

Less water pumped from the delta could spur additional, mandatory conservation strategies as communities draw on groundwater and storage supplies. It could also force farmers in the San Joaquin Valley to delay planting crops, said California Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura.

In court, lawyers for the state and federal governments and water contractors argued that water pumping was a minor cause of the smelt's record decline. They also pointed to invasive species, toxic runoff, wastewater dumping and an old plumbing system in the delta.

But when Wanger made his ruling, he said "the evidence is uncontradicted" that the pumps hurt the smelt and "the law says something has to be done about it."

The ruling is meant to be effective until federal wildlife officials complete their plan to protect the smelt, which is expected next spring.

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