Water groups push for projects in wake of delta smelt ruling

SACRAMENTO -- Idle farmland. Hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses. Dry times are ahead for a state struggling to serve up more water from a tapped-out ecosystem.

A judge's order Aug. 31 is expected to require state and federal agencies to pump one-third less water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The estuary provides water to 23 million Californians and about 5 million acres of farmland.

The historic order rocked cities, farmers and water officials statewide, who fear that shortages are ahead.

"It's our quality of life that is at stake and the regional economy as well," said Greg Zlotnick, special counsel for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which provides delta water to 1.7 million people in Silicon Valley.

Wednesday, a powerful alliance of water interests used that concern to press hard for a package of politically touchy solutions: new dams and a canal around the delta favored by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

"This crisis is indefinite," said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. "It will last until we implement a comprehensive program, such as the governor has outlined."

Stephen Patricio, chairman of the Western Growers Association, estimated economic effects in the farm sector from the court order could reach $400 million next year, if the state is blessed with normal rainfall.

Zlotnick said his agency may have to reduce the amount of water projected to be available for new housing and commercial development.

'Day of reckoning has arrived'

While some blamed the judge and environmental laws for causing the cutbacks, others said it was only a matter of time.

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, said California has long relied too heavily on the delta as a water supply even as danger signs mounted. A longtime delta advocate, he said the solution involves prioritizing how we use water and adopting aggressive conservation measures.

"The day of reckoning has arrived," Miller said. "Now we have an opportunity to work within the environmental realities of the delta and see if we can work out how we can operate this system and protect it at the same time."

The court ruling, handed down by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno, came in a case brought against state and federal water officials by the Natural Resources Defense Council and three other environmental groups.

Wanger found that the agencies' plan for operating the delta failed to adequately consider harm to the fragile delta smelt, a finger-length fish that is a vital indicator of the estuary's health.

The judge called for pumping reductions from December through June sufficient to protect the smelt. He gave the parties 50 days to translate his verbal order into a set of operating rules.

That order will stand until late next year, when a new set of rules, already in the works, is expected to be finished. But the new rules are likely to continue pumping reductions.

Officials at Wednesday's press conference said they were analyzing the court decision to understand its effect. Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said it will mean a cutback to delta water users of 12 percent to 37 percent.

"We're going to have to call for unprecedented levels of conservation from our 18 million customers," said Roger Patterson, assistant gen- eral manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest urban consumer of delta water.

Restrictions may not be a disaster

Not everyone sees the pumping cutbacks as a calamity.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Oakland, said the pumping slowdown represents a prime opportunity to reconsider how water is used in California.

Gleick said it is critical for urban and agri- cultural interests to use water more efficiently.

"There's enough water for healthy agriculture and a healthy economy, but there's not enough to waste or use inefficiently," he said.

He gave numerous examples: Replace 6-gallon-per-flush toilets with 1.6-gallon models and top-loading washing machines with more efficient front-loaders. Use precision sprinklers to irrigate fields and shift from growing crops that use lots of water to those that require less.

Gleick noted that four farming staples -- rice, cotton, alfalfa and irrigated pasture -- use about half of the agricultural water in the state but produce a small fraction of agricultural income.

"I'm not saying, 'Don't grow cotton or alfalfa,' " Gleick said, "but it is worth discussing how much we grow. These have been taboo discussions in the past."

Others warned against rushing into solutions that may have long-term consequences.

"What we're seeing here is the tip of the iceberg with regard to the long-term decay of the delta," said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis. "We have to be very thoughtful about how we redesign the delta."