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Gulp!

As Southern California gets drier, we're all going to have to swallow tougher water measures.

September 13, 2007

In the late summer of a bone-dry 2007, 2008 is already looking like another bad year for water supplies in Southern California. It's past time for Los Angeles to start paying attention.

Two weeks ago, a federal judge ruled that state and federal water projects must limit the pumping operations that move fresh water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and into the southern part of the state -- all to protect the delta smelt, an endangered fish considered a bellwether for that region's fragile ecosystem. That may sound arcane, but it has serious everyday consequences. The water that flows through the delta serves 25 million people, providing more than a third of Southern California's supply. Officials estimate that the judge's ruling could cut off more than 30% of delta deliveries for at least a year.

Water districts from Silicon Valley to San Diego said they'd be squeezed next year, but most, like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said they hadn't yet decided to impose mandatory restrictions on water use. The Metropolitan Water District, Southern California's water wholesaler, will determine later this year how much water the DWP, which got 70% of its water from the MWD this year, will receive in 2008. Officials at the DWP, in turn, will wait until this allocation is made before calling for mandatory restrictions, which might include tiered pricing (with households exceeding a certain level of use paying higher rates, on a sliding scale) and enforcement of existing conservation rules.

It's great that Los Angeles has kept usage steady over the last 20 years; that the DWP is investing in local ground-, storm- and wastewater reclamation; that water agencies across the state are ramping up education campaigns; and that the MWD has done such a good job of building up reserves for non-rainy days. But given the profound uncertainties facing the state's water system, the choice to wait on mandatory restrictions is puzzling. As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa reminded Angelenos in June when he called for (as yet unrealized) voluntary 10% reductions in water use, low local rainfall, diminished Sierra snowpacks and prolonged drought conditions on the Colorado River have combined to make this year L.A.'s driest ever. The effects of global warming on future water supplies are still unknown. And endangered species aren't the only threat to delta pumping: A breach in the region's unstable levees could shut down operations at any moment.

A more inspiring and productive response would capitalize on the sense of urgency and call on Los Angeles to do its part to address wider water woes now. Careful consideration of proposals to re-engineer the delta should be one part of the effort; serious dedication to conservation, another. Planners across the state should think twice before they allow development of lush suburbs or vast farmlands in hydrologically-challenged regions. All Californians will have to work for a water system that works for everyone.

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