One question hung in the air for many months after a landmark ruling by a federal judge in Fresno severely limited amounts of water the huge pumps in the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers can send to much of the San Francisco Bay area, Southern California and farms in the Central Valley:Why didn’t anyone even try to overturn the ruling?There was no appeal, it turns out, because that 2007 decision was somewhat temporary, applying only until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could issue new rules to protect the endangered, silvery, minnow-like Delta smelt. Few court rulings have been as consequential in the short run as that one by Judge Oliver Wanger, and the new rules, just out, figure to have even more impact. Simply put, this is causing a major drought.Wanger’s decision was one reason many California reservoirs neared their lowest levels ever last summer and fall. Yes, 2007 and 2008 were dry years, but this drought did not approach record levels. Wanger’s ruling made things far more severe by depriving the state Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) of about one-third of the water their reservoirs would ordinarily have gotten.Now a series of February and March storms has restored the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, ultimate source for most water in the Delta, to normal or near-normal levels.But the new Fish and Wildlife regulations will stop the pumps even longer times than did Wanger’s order. The idea is to idle them during the entire smelt spawning season, essentially from January to June.So supplies will be low for farms and cities this spring and summer. Perhaps not as low as indicated by the Federal Bureau of Reclamation before the late-winter storms, when it warned many farmers to expect no water at all from the CVP. But still far lower than if the pumps were operating normally.This time, though, there’s an attempt to keep the pumps running. It takes the form of a lawsuit by the Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which help irrigate vast swaths of the western San Joaquin Valley. They essentially argue the new rules unreasonably value fish over people. And they’re right.This lawsuit comes in the wake of a batch of news stories detailing what the no-water notice from the CVP could mean, if carried out. Essentially, no water means no survival for places like Firebaugh and Huron and Mendota, which could become ghost towns if their farming economies dry up.Drying up is a real possibility just now. Some large farms have already begun fallowing fields and other strategies to cope with drought, hoping to survive on whatever ground water their wells can pump.”Yes, the initial cause of the lack of water was a long drought,” said Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for the Fresno-based Westlands district. “That’s now changed, but there still won’t be much water. Our reservoirs are at record low levels now because we depleted all of them to meet the needs of salmon in the San Joaquin River (required by a federal law). That’s on top of what was done for the smelt.”But there’s substantial doubt that stopping the pumps actually did much for the smelt. It turns out getting sucked into the pumps is only one hazard of smelt life in the Delta. There are also problems like low food supply, hungry predator fish and an often-toxic (from industrial pollution) water habitat. No one has ever known the precise role pumps play in the smelt shortage, and no one knows today if shutting them down has helped. That’s because there’s no specific information on smelt numbers.What is known is that a hatchery (estimated cost: $5 million, a paltry figure by California budget standards) could easily keep the Delta smelt population up. But purists don’t like the idea of farmed fish. Like some restaurant customers, they like their fish wild. And damn the consequences for people.That’s cockeyed thinking, and there’s a possibility the Westlands-San Luis lawsuit might change things a bit. The districts do not suggest ignoring either smelt or salmon, only that the interests of humans be considered, too.The rules, they argue, “will result in significant harm to Californians who depend on (that) water supply” and offer no real promise of help for the smelt. The regulations should be revised again, with more pumping allowed in the interim, the water districts claim. It’s possible this lawsuit will get some traction, as it may be heard by a judge other than Wanger. One thing for sure: With snowpack levels and river flows at normal levels or above after the late-winter snow and rains, when California experiences water rationing or a drought this summer and fall, it will not be the fault of nature. This one will be strictly man-made.
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