The age-old battle over “blue gold,” commonly known as water, is boiling over in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – America’s Most Endangered River. Most analysts are calling it the fight between the people versus the fish. However, there is more to this battle than meets the eyes.
On the surface, the farmers, fishermen, urban users and environmentalists are all fighting over the dwindling water supply in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Overextended water rights, climate change, population growth, less snow pack runoff and drought conditions for the past three years has resulted in a decreased water supply. The dwindling river and continued water exports have put salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon fish populations on the endangered lists as well as the Northwest Pacific killer whales that rely on this food supply. For the past two years, salmon seasons have closed early because of the declining fish populations. As a result, federal judge Wanger had issued an executive order decreasing the amount of water exports for agricultural and urban uses to protect the fish populations.
Although the fishing industry is pleased with any decision to protect the fish, ecosystems and consequently their livelihoods, agribusiness users who rely on the exports are screaming bloody murder as their water exports are decreased, their crops threatened and their livelihoods hanging in the midst. And major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, which receives about 30 percent of its water from the Delta, stand to lose a portion of their dwindling water supply.
This past week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a biological opinion that the Delta’s fish populations face “dire environmental conditions unless irrigation from the federal Central Valley Project and the California State Project – already at historic lows – are curtailed even further.”
Specifically, the NMFS’ directive called for a reduction in irrigations supplies by another 5 to 7 percent a year as well as measures to help the endangered fish species. For example, the agency recommended opening the Red Bluff Diversion Dam on the Sacramento River completely to allow the Chinook salmon and sturgeon unimpeded passage, which would aid their reproduction.
California Gov. Schwarzenegger is not pleased with the order. In a statement, he said the plan “puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth-largest economy. The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act.”
The San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast and Southern California stand to lose about 330,000 acre feet per year in water deliveries based on the new restrictions, according to NMFS. So, urban users, water districts and the farming industry plan to fight back through lawsuits that challenge these orders. The Westlands Water District, which supplies water to the mega farms in San Joaquin Valley, will be a major player in the upcoming legal battle.
“If it were allowed to stand, this … would be a death sentence for large parts of California’s economy. Communities in the San Joaquin Valley are already experiencing 40 percent unemployment rates,” Fresno-based Westlands, the nation’s largest water district, said in a statement.
Water reductions, endangered fish, imperiled ecosystems have set the stage for a political and legislative battle to determine how the Delta’s precious resource will be divided and saved. (There are currently 16 pending bills before the California Legislature, which attempt to tackle the various challenges in the Delta.)
My reporting will continue to cover the ongoing battle over the water in the Delta as well as the political fight staged over the resolutions – namely the peripheral canal and the stalled implementation of the Delta Vision Task Force’s recommendations.
More to come….
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