Keeping Water Wars at Bay

California's Grand Central Station for water braces for new federal regulations on use

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ARMERS, industrialists, and city dwellers in this part of the state are on edge - they may never enjoy first dibs on California's limited water supplies again.

From a small plane gliding low over the Sacramento Valley, Rice Industry Association Field Manager Bob Herkert nudged me as we flew over tens of thousands of geese wintering on flooded rice fields below: ``If the south takes our water, this waterfowl habitat could be history,'' he said.

He'll find out on D-day, Dec. 15, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announces a host of water-quality and environmental standards for the Bay-Delta region, a sort of Grand Central Station for 75 percent of the state's water deliveries. Because the state itself has failed to come up with standards ensuring ``fishable, swimmable waters'' under requirements of the Clean Water Act - and has been sued by several environmental groups - the federal government is moving to promulgate its own standards.

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For 90 days after next week's announcements are made, a public comment period will ensue in which all players from residents and industry to farmers and environmentalists will have their say at seemingly endless hearings.

The 17 states known as America's arid West will be tuned to the proceedings as well, hoping to decipher implications for the water wars playing out elsewhere.

``How California deals with fixing its Delta region is the most broad-reaching resource issue in the West,'' says Allen Garcia, board member of the Northern California Water Association. ``How much water gets delivered where and why is the driving force behind how society continues to develop here.''

Though exact figures have yet to be announced, preliminary estimates released by the EPA last month show that the new standards will require increased flows of water into San Francisco Bay. Water allocations to agriculture as well as to municipal and industrial uses will likely be reduced.

``We applaud [the] EPA's effort at breaking the logjam of California water policy,'' says Gary Bobker, water-policy analyst for the Bay Institute of San Francisco, a nonprofit research and environmental-advocacy group, one of several suing the state. The institute has tracked the decline of winter-run chinook salmon populations from 118,000 spawning fish in 1969 to 341 this year. Delta smelt has also declined 90 percent over a decade. Striped bass, once the estuary's most popular game fish, has declined by 90 percent from the 3 million to 5 million that existed in the 1970s.

``The standards package, if implemented, can be the single most important factor moving the state beyond conflict and into a new era of cooperation on water issues,'' Mr. Bobker says.

Also to be announced next week are opinions of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on critical habitat needs for the Delta smelt, now listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

The USFWS will also proclaim whether or not two other Delta fish species will be listed - the Longfin smelt and the Splittail. And they will declare how 800,000 acre-feet of water dedicated to fish and wildlife, as mandated by the recently passed Central Valley Project Improvement Act, will be allocated.

The law, signed in October 1992, sets aside the allotment of 800,000 acre-feet for environmental use by fisheries and wildlife refuges before agriculture and urban users can receive their allotments.

Another reason water users are on edge is that although the federal government is issuing the standards, it has no jurisdiction to enforce them. That's up to the state.

``Stay tuned, this will be long and messy,'' Mr. Garcia says.

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