California turns back the taps

A court ruling that will reduce water supplies should prompt a broader discussion of water use.

Can Californians cope with a court-ordered drought on top of a natural one? They'll soon find out as they're forced to reduce their water use for the sake of a three-inch silvery fish, the delta smelt.

A federal judge ruled last month that the state must reduce its water draw on the West's largest delta by up to 37 percent. This is to save the delta's smelt, which was declared endangered in 1993. It can't outswim the pumps that export trillions of gallons of water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to 70 percent of Californians.

The fish is what's known as an indicator species, because it signals habitat health. The outflow reduction is scheduled from Dec. 26 to June, and could go longer, depending on a plan by federal wildlife officials to save the smelt – due out in the spring.

The smelt will have more water to swim in, but that means significantly less for people to use. What amounts to a court-ordered drought comes on top of a severe natural one (southern California, which gets 60 percent of its water from the delta, is experiencing its driest year on record).

The water cutback is expected to be quite disruptive, costing jobs and crops in the agricultural sector, a rethink of manufacturing of computer chips, and the prospect of mandatory conservation measures in areas around the state.

It is a classic clash of values – human well-being vs. wildlife protection – that first calls for deeper thinking and planning about the state's precious liquid resource.

If not the demise of the smelt, than any number of other trends should be pushing California to more seriously address water use. Over the next half century, California's population is expected to grow by nearly 75 percent, to about 60 million. That's a lot of pressure on a limited water supply.

Add to that the challenges of climate change. Warmer temperatures prompt earlier snowmelt, higher human demand for water, and higher rates of evaporation.

Meanwhile, scientists say periods of drought in the Colorado River basin, which also supplies California, are more historically common than previously thought. A study by the National Research Council in February concluded that conservation alone cannot solve the basin's water-supply problems.

Californians have become better water conservers since a drought in 1990-91. For instance, the same amount of water is being delivered to southern California as in 1990, despite 3 million more people.

That's the right kind of attitude for a deeper discussion of the way ahead.

State politicians are moving in that direction with various proposals to improve the state's plumbing, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal for two new reservoirs and a canal to route water around the delta. These plans will need careful consideration.

Then there's agriculture, which accounts for the lion's share of water use. Rice, cotton, alfalfa, and pasture irrigation use about half of farmers' water allotment, but they're not the biggest income producers. Should those farmers switch out?

As for urban dwellers, should water curbs be placed on development, the economic lifeline of communities?

These tough questions need to be asked. Perhaps the smelt can bring them to the surface.

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