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Monday, July 23, 2007 | While the region is coping with decreased water supplies from dry winters in the Sierra Nevada and Colorado Rockies, another factor is complicating the problem.

The state Department of Water Resources is proposing a year-long plan to reduce deliveries from the State Water Project, which sends Sierra Nevada snowmelt to San Diego. The snowmelt is a major source of San Diego’s water.

The Metropolitan Water District, the wholesaler that delivers most of the region’s water, says the state plan could cut Sierra Nevada supplies by 40 percent in an average year of precipitation. That would cut the district’s overall supply by about 25 percent.

A spokesman for the San Diego County Water Authority, MWD’s largest customer, declined comment, saying the authority was still evaluating the proposal’s impact. The Los Angeles-based district says mandatory rationing is growing increasingly possible.

Cutbacks “could get fairly significant,” said Roger Patterson, MWD’s assistant general manager. “We’re in a difficult time here.”

The state filed its proposal in federal court, where environmentalists have sued over the preservation of an endangered fish called the delta smelt. Environmental groups have successfully argued that the state’s permits for operating pumps that push water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Southern California did not protect the smelt, which is ground up in the pumps.

Those pumps are a key to the State Water Project, which carries Sierra Nevada snowmelt over mountain ranges and through a complex system of aqueducts hundreds of miles long before reaching Southern California.

While the state reapplies for those permits, it needs an interim plan for managing the delta’s water — one that won’t make the smelt go extinct. The Department of Water Resources has advocated for a plan that would reduce deliveries to customers from the Bay Area to Southern California through 2008. Environmental groups, the plaintiffs in the case, are expected to request more restrictive cuts. Their plan is due in court Monday.

With the severity of cutbacks in a judge’s hands — and a permanent remedy on the way — water suppliers are concerned that parts of the interim proposal could be adopted as a permanent solution.

“Everything’s possible,” said Jerry Johns, deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources, which submitted the plan and operates the State Water Project. “We’re still at the early stages of this discussion.”

The short-term solution varies in severity depending on where the smelt decide to spawn early next year. The state estimates it could reduce State Water Project deliveries by between 800,000 acre feet to 2 million acre feet. (An acre foot equals about 326,000 gallons.) By comparison, all of the San Diego County Water Authority’s customers used about 700,000 acre feet in 2006.

If the fish migrate out of the Sacramento River into the interior of the delta, the state would severely cut water deliveries from the delta, Johns said. Earlier this year, the state turned off the pumps that send water to Southern California for 10 days to protect the fish.

But the state plan has a narrow goal: avoiding contributing to the fish’s extinction.

“Someone needs to look at [the delta] from a more holistic standpoint,” Johns said. “While this is necessary, this will not solve the delta smelt problem or make water supplies more sustainable.”

The delta smelt, listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act, is a small fish that typically lives a year and grows no bigger than six inches. Its population has plummeted drastically in recent years. The fish is considered an indicator of the delta’s overall health.

“It’s the bottom of the food chain,” said Brian Smith, a spokesman for Earthjustice, the lead environmental plaintiff. “When you lose an indicator species it foretells the collapse of an ecosystem.”

The remedies for the delta smelt would not correct the structural deficiencies that plague the delta. Environmentalists say increasing water withdrawals from the delta have contributed to the smelt’s decline. As an eight-year drought has set in on the Colorado River — historically considered the most vital cog in San Diego’s water supply — the region has increasingly relied on the delta and the State Water Project. In some years, Southern California has gotten 70 percent of its water from the project.

Though it is vital, state officials, environmentalists, water managers and academics agree that the delta is not sustainable. The state estimates that a 6.5-magnitude earthquake — about the same strength as the 1989 temblor that struck San Francisco — could destroy many of the old, earthen levees that direct water through the delta. Invasive species and toxic pesticide runoff from agriculture are further damaging its ecosystem.

Voters may have a say on what is being characterized as a long-term solution when they cast their ballots next year. Legislators have offered competing visions for how to best improve the state’s water reliability.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has touted a $6 billion bond package that would build two new dams to increase the delta’s storage. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, has proposed a $5 billion package that advocates a focus on regional solutions — not on dams and canals. Both contain $1 billion to improve water conveyance. Though neither politician has directly said it, many expect that they will revive a divisive plan to build a canal around the delta.

The plan, known as the peripheral canal, was defeated by voters in 1982. Southern California water managers are advocating for its revival. Building more dams north of the delta doesn’t address the problem, they say, because they would be built above the pumps that send to Southern California. If those pumps are shut down again, having more water stored north of them wouldn’t help the region. Without pumps to get it here, that water would be inaccessible.

While Schwarzenegger has touted dams as a significant part of his proposal, water managers say they have little apparent benefit to Southern California.

“You can’t safely get it through the delta without conveyance,” said Roger Patterson, assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Water District. “Storage could be helpful. But conveyance is the issue.”

Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, said the canal stands a better chance of approval than in 1982, when the proposal was viewed as a Southern California water grab. Opponents may instead zero in on the massive dam proposal, Erie said.

“It may well be that the battle that engages the environmental community will be on storage (and dam construction,)” Erie said, “now that the rallying cry is bypass the delta and save the delta.”

But the peripheral canal is already meeting resistance in the communities around the delta, where advocates say it will cut off the delta’s freshwater supply, allowing salty water to intrude farther inland from San Francisco Bay.

Emphasizing regional water self-sufficiency, water reclamation and desalination would be less expensive and yield more water than a peripheral canal, said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director for Restore the Delta, a Stockton-based coalition of farmers and environmentalists.

“If you put in a peripheral canal,” Barrigan-Parrilla said, “that would just turn us into an inland salty lake.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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