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New pressure to export local water

Santa Rosa Press Democrat

New pressure to export local water

January 16, 2003


The U.S. Interior Department’s recent decision to cut 15 percent of California’s take of Colorado River water may not have the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District (MWD) shaking in its boots, but it is causing serious concerns up north.

The cut occurred after a transfer deal between Southern California’s urban water providers and the Imperial Irrigation District fell apart. This transfer was the key part of a larger agreement between California and the other Western states dependent upon Colorado River to reduce its chronic overuse of the river. Without the deal, California is facing the immediate loss of about 800,000 acre-feet of water, enough for more than 1.6 million households for a year.

MWD, which wholesales water to 18 million people throughout Southern California, says the loss, while bad, isn’t causing a crisis. As widely reported, district officials claim they can make up the cut through water conservation practices (MWD reduced average customer usage from 210 gallons a day in 1989 to the current 170 gallons), ground-water development, desalination pro-jects — and by buying up farm water up north.

In the last of which lies the rub. Pressure to export more Northern California water — already high — is bound to increase. Water developer Ric Davidge has dropped his idea to export Albion and Gualala river water to San Diego but is now interested in purchasing water from Humboldt County. And MWD is already involved in negotiations to purchase some 200,000 acre-feet from Sacramento Valley rice farmers — water these growers may not be entitled to sell because of overstated demand, insufficient conservation and inadequate streamflow protection in the region.

The implications for the ecology of other north state rivers, including the Klamath and Trinity rivers, are not encouraging.

Of equal concern to conservationists and north state locals are the potential effects on the Sacramento River Delta and San Francisco Bay, its habitat and its wildlife. On average, half of the water that would normally flow to the bay is already diverted upstream or exported from the delta to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities, with disastrous consequences for endangered species and habitats.

There are a number of major potential impacts to the bay from moving increased amounts of water south through an already strained delta system. As I write this, the allowed limits for “taking” (that is, killing) endangered spring-run chinook salmon at the delta pumps are being exceeded. Additional pumping will only increase the likelihood the impacts on endangered fisheries, including other salmon runs, will be worsened. Delta water quality and habitat conditions will also suffer as a result.

To add insult to injury, the increased pumping would be taking place at a time when recent federal and state protections for the Bay-Delta system are being weakened by lax government enforcement, budget shortfalls and a legal onslaught from agribusiness and developers.

Conservationists understand the need people have for water — we use it ourselves, after all. But we also know that in these days of limits, especially in semi-arid California, the most reliable source of water lies in water users being more efficient with existing supplies.

By our support of more thoughtful urban development policies, more aggressive water conservation (including changes in urban landscaping practices and management of farm runoff) innovative reclamation and recycling, increased use of our neglected ground-water resources (cheaper and more environmentally friendly than building new reservoirs) and a stronger emphasis on protecting our remaining natural heritage will help us weather the latest water “crisis.”

By supporting these wise water management initiatives we can help ensure that Southern California meet its needs and relives some of the pressure on our fragile bay delta system.

Grant Davis is executive director of The Bay Institute, a nonprofit research, education and advocacy group that works to protect and restore the San Francisco Bay ecosystem and reform Western water policy.

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