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Report Proves California Water Limits Justifiable

March 21, 2010

The National Academy of Sciences released a report on Friday stating that federal limits on water that can be pumped out of a major river delta for California farmers are scientifically justified.

Environmentalists in the state’s epic water wars have praised this report.  However, the academy stopped short of handing out decisive victory to environmental interests over agriculture interests.

According to the group, further study is needed and Chinook salmon, delta smelt and other endangered fish are not entirely threatened by the pumping.

“The Academy of Sciences report clearly validates the biological opinions,” Ann Hayden told Reuters regarding regulations devised under court order by federal wildlife biologists and issued in late 2008. Hayden is a senior water resource analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“It’s time to stop pitting the economic interests of farmers against fishermen and move forward to find solutions,” Hayden said. “We have pushed the Bay-Delta system to the brink of collapse and saving it — and the jobs that depend on it — is going to require increased cooperation among all interests.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation’s spokesman told Reuters the report showed the need for “better justification of water restrictions” and flaws can be found in Endangered Species Act.

“We believe the government must do a better job of managing the delta pumps, to make more water available for people while still protecting the fish,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Wenger also said a number of factors, such as sewage treatment plants and non-native fish, represent a threat to the protected species.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta lies at the center of California’s long-running tug of war over water, which has become more heated during a three-year drought that led to rationing, higher charges for water and mandatory conservation measures across the state.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and state Water Resources Department have cutback water deliveries to thousands of farm workers and large swaths of farmland. 

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, has proposed easing the environmental restrictions to allow the pumping of more water for growers as a response to the crisis.

Environmental activists, as well as fishing groups and other democratic members, were not happy with Feinstien’s proposal.  She dropped the plan after state and federal agencies announced they would supply farms considerably more water this year compared to last.

Lawmakers said they plan to wait for the National Academy of Sciences’ report before making further policy decisions.  The report was ordered by the Obama administration.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said irrigation districts south of the delta would get 25 percent of their contracted water allotment from the Bureau of Reclamation, which is up from 5 percent in February.

The increase comes at a critical time for the Central Valley, one of the country’s most bountiful agricultural regions, and it was issued ahead of schedule.  California produces over half the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the U.S.

The state water agency boosted its allocation for all users up to 15 percent, which is up 5 percent from last year.

The state is responsible for supplying over 25 million people with over 750,000 acres of farmland with water from the delta.

Image Courtesy California Depertment of Fish and Game

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