A proposed change in how the federal government measures water for fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta has environmental groups alarmed and California officials concerned about potential harm to wildlife habitat.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. − A proposed change in how the federal government measures water for fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta has environmental groups alarmed and California officials concerned about potential harm to wildlife habitat.
A coalition of 22 environmental groups said Wednesday the plan would shift some of the federal water burden -- and potentially more than $20 million in expenses in some years -- onto the state-controlled water supply. In some years, hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water might not be available for wildlife, the groups said.
Federal spokesmen said the plan would protect the environmental water allotment while balancing the needs of farmers and urban residents.
At issue are agreements, federal law and a federal court decision that requires the government to guarantee 800,000 acre-feet of federally controlled water goes to Delta fisheries each year. That's roughly enough water to supply 800,000 households for a year.
"This is a big, thorny issue of water in California," said Diana Jacobs, deputy director of the state Department of Fish and Game.
It all goes back to too many demands on too little water needed by fish, farmers and 22 million residents as far south as Los Angeles and San Diego.
"If you put all these things together ... sometimes the federal contractors have to get curtailed. They feel like that's not fair," said Jacobs, referring to water districts that get their supplies through the federal system of dams, pumps and canals.
The San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which represents San Joaquin Valley farmers and includes the Westlands Water District, the nation's largest irrigation district, sued and won a federal court decision last year that helped prompt the proposed changes.
"From our perspective, the 800,000 acre-feet allocation magically took a million, a million-two acre-feet of water from the agricultural community" by the time all the environmental agreements were tallied, said water authority spokesman Tupper Hull. The proposed changes are "encouraging, from what we've seen."
The proposal is designed to make sure the water allocation doesn't exceed 800,000 acre-feet, while guaranteeing fisheries receive that required amount, the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service said in a letter last week to their two state counterparts.
Their proposal would merge two water accounts in cooperation with state agencies, and count water allocated under an earlier agreement toward the 800,000 acre-feet. It also would shift the accounting year by three months so early winter rains that refill empty reservoirs could be counted toward water reserved for wildlife.
The environmental coalition alleged the changes would violate the federal court order and the government's own plan to manage the delta.
"Not surprisingly, if you play Enron-style accounting games, you can rip off water from the environment," said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The accounting rules are complicated, but the effect is simple: they're ripping off fish and wildlife to benefit their usual friends."
Not so, said Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken.
"It doesn't take any water away from the environment. It will provide the 800,000 as required by law, and as we've always done," McCracken said. "It shifts the use of timing, but it doesn't shift the use of water."
Fish and Game's Jacobs said it's too early to tell, until the state plugs the proposed changes into its model of how the state's complicated, overtaxed plumbing system operates.
"We're concerned we don't go backwards for fish, and we can still do all the fish restoration actions we used to do," she said.
Katherine Kelly, chief of the Bay-Delta Office of the state Department of Water Resources, couldn't comment on the merits of the proposal, but said federal officials need to use a pending public comment period "to make the case that this is an improvement," as it is intended.
California Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Dave Kranz said his organization hadn't had a chance to review the proposal and couldn't comment.
Source: Associated Press