Apr 14, 2008

California Water Supply Cut by 600,000 Acre-Feet

Public water agencies are receiving 35% of their annual water allocation from the State Water Project

Urban water users and farmers are already feeling the pinch from restrictions imposed by an unprecedented federal court ruling that has slashed California's water supply by 600,000 acre-feet of water in the first quarter of 2008. The amount of water lost so far this year is enough to serve more than 4.8 million people for one year.

Public water agencies are only receiving 35% of their annual allocation of water from the State Water Project (SWP)—a level to which water agencies have not been restricted since the severe 1991 drought.

Notwithstanding recent optimistic snowpack reports, precipitation is very low this year for the second year in a row. Compounding the problem is the regulatory restriction, which makes it harder to move the water when it is available.

"We are experiencing a dry year shortage that is being exacerbated by regulatory restrictions," said Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors. "Our water system is being strangled, and there is no end in sight unless we change how we move water across the state and fix the broken Delta."

"This untenable situation puts all Californians at risk. We are digging into our drought reserves to protect fish," Moon said.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger ordered a massive reduction in water supplies from the state's two largest water delivery systems, the SWP and the Central Valley Project, to help protect an endangered fish species, the Delta smelt—the largest court-ordered water supply reduction in California history. A definitive factor for the fish decline has not yet been identified.The two projects move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to urban and agricultural water users in Northern, Central and Southern California.

Of the 600,000 acre-feet of water that have been cut, 465,000 acre-feet have come directly from the SWP, which serves 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of prime agricultural land.

In response to the situation, some water agencies have already called for even greater levels of water conservation, or imposed rationing and rate hikes on their customers this year. These measures could become even more widespread and severe in the next few years.

According to the Association of California Water Agencies, one acre-foot of water is enough to meet the needs of two typical families for a year. In quantifying this water supply reduction, 600,000 acre-feet of water is enough to serve the residents of San Jose, with a population of 974,000 people, for nearly five years.

These court-ordered pumping restrictions will be in effect until a revised biological opinion for Delta smelt is prepared that will ensure the projects' compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

State leaders and scientists agree that a long-term solution is needed to restore the Delta and protect California's water supply. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a collaborative effort between water agencies, environmental organizations and state and federal agencies, is now mapping out a comprehensive conservation plan for the Delta, including identifying ways of improving the design and operation of California's two primary water delivery systems.

"Given the increasingly vulnerable state of the Delta, we must develop a comprehensive solution for the estuary and our water delivery system," Moon said. "What we need are not short-term actions of the courts, but long-term conveyance and habitat restoration measures such as those that will be proposed in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan."