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Court decision threatens California water supplies

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—A recent court-ordered reduction in deliveries by the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project will have sweeping impacts across the state, according to the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA). "The scope of this decision will be felt in nearly every region of California, in some cases within a few weeks," ACWA Executive Director Timothy Quinn said. "These reductions represent the single largest court-ordered redirection of water in state history. It truly hammers home the serious challenges facing our statewide water system."

Ruling on a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) against the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger ordered the two projects to reduce pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect a threatened fish species, the Delta smelt. According to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), the projects together manage more than 40 reservoirs that can store about 17 million acre-feet of water. The ACWA said court-ordered reduced pumping translates into a loss of as much as one-third or more of previously available water supplies, or a cut of as much as 2 million acre-feet.

"This ruling takes away more than just acre-feet of water. It takes away the water management toolbox we’ve created over the past 20 years through public investment in everything from local water storage to water transfers," Quinn said. "We are now forced to rely on stored water supplies that are our insurance against the next drought. To put this into perspective, the San Luis Reservoir is at 20-percent capacity right now. If we must cut deliveries through the Delta, then we will need more surface storage facilities to meet demand.

Wanger’s decision compounds challenges already facing water suppliers this year because of dry conditions. Many agencies have been drawing on emergency or reserve supplies and asking their customers to reduce water use voluntarily. More stringent restrictions, including rationing, are expected as a result of the ruling, and the situation could be dire if dry conditions continue.

In mid-September, the Long Beach, Calif., Board of Water Commissioners declared an "imminent water supply shortage" because of the court decision. It also cited dramatic recent reductions in water storage levels in key reservoirs in Northern California, record low rainfall in the Southern California coastal plain, and the continuation of an eight-year drought in the Colorado River watershed. Long Beach imports almost half of its water.

Based on initial estimates, the MWD said it could lose as much as 30 percent of its supplies from Northern California next year and possibly longer. "Judge Wanger’s ruling only lasts for a year until a new biological opinion is in place to guide the operation of the two water projects," said MWD General Manager Jeff Kightlinger. "But its impacts could be felt statewide for many years to come."

In a press release from the NRDC, Senior Attorney Kate Poole said, "We can manage the San Francisco Bay Delta to protect fisheries and supply clean, reliable water to downstream users. The key is to use water wisely. Through conservation, wastewater recycling, and better use of groundwater, we can keep enough fresh water in the delta to ensure clean water and healthy fisheries. Water managers have been planning for this for years."