Excerpted from Sharon Bernstein; Reuters
Drought-plagued California will ease some protection for fish in the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, officials said Tuesday, a move expected to make more water available for farming and ease political tensions in an election year.
“California’s agriculture is critical to the world’s food supply,” said assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, who represents part of the San Joaquin Valley, who had lobbied hard against the restrictions. “An inability to produce that food would clearly be devastating to health and human safety not only in California but around the globe.”
Citing recent rains, regulators said Tuesday, there was enough water in the state’s reservoirs now to partially ease restrictions.
“We were quite concerned at that time about the issue of public health and safety,” Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “This really had the markings of a historic drought.”
Recent storms dropped nearly a foot of rain in some areas, boosting reservoir levels and the snowpack that the state relies on for drinking water in the spring, but still leaving supplies way below normal for this time of year.
Earlier this month, concern that the state was about to restrict water supplies to farmers even further swept through the agricultural community, spurring intensive pushback and a series of tense meetings with water regulators in the administration of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.
“We are very concerned that if the current proposal as reported to us is enacted, it will have significant near- and long-term effects on the California economy and, more importantly, will not achieve the desired water supply security intended,” U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Congressmen Jim Costa and John Garamendi, all Democrats, wrote in a letter to the water board.
Under the new rules announced Tuesday, which Howard said may be modified again next month, the two massive public water projects responsible for pumping in the Delta will be able to deliver it to farmers and others, once the state determines that there is enough flowing to meet the health and sanitation needs of residents.
Scott Shapiro, an attorney specializing in water issues for the Sacramento firm Downey Brand, said expanding the allowable uses of tight water supplies was not just important for farmers.
“It’s not just for agriculture, because there are other needs that may be contracted for that go beyond health and safety,” Shapiro said. “It could include other municipal, industrial and agricultural needs.
In addition to allowing more of the water pumped from the Delta to be used for purposes other than meeting health and safety needs, the state planned to reduce by about a third the amount of water that the projects were required to leave in the Delta as a way of protecting fish, Howard said during the press briefing.
Mark Cowin, Director of California Department of Water Resources, commented that fish and wildlife experts consulted by his department said that endangered species in the Delta would not be harmed by the looser rules.