The Westlands Water District announced on March 4 that it is joining with other public water agencies in the San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority in filing a lawsuit to undo the latest round of cutbacks that federal authorities have ordered in California's water supplies.
"We are in the midst of an emergency that Gov. Schwarzenegger has rightly pointed out will impose hardships on all Californians," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District.
"In the Central Valley, communities are facing catastrophic consequences. The federal government has announced that farmers we serve will receive no water to grow their crops. And another set of federal authorities are demanding that we waste hundreds of thousands of acre feet of freshwater into the ocean on behalf of an endangered minnow that will not benefit in any way from the losses suffered by the people who rely on water supplied by the Central Valley Project," Birmingham said.
The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California to enjoin the enforcement of a biological opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that has cut water supplies to two-thirds of California's residents by approximately 30 percent.
"We are not trying to upset the Endangered Species Act," said Birmingham. "We are trying to ensure that the Act is implemented in a manner consistent with its requirement that decisions be based on the basis of the best available science."
The lawsuit cites numerous instances in which USFWS officials violated their own standards for scientific accuracy, contradicted their own findings, and substituted their own suppositions for hard evidence.
"On top of the enormous economic damage this biological opinion has done to millions of people, it has also had sweeping environmental impacts that have even complicated the survival of California's salmon fisheries," Birmingham said. "And yet, they did no environmental impact analysis before issuing their decree."
For nearly 20 years, the availability of California's water supplies has been tied to the welfare of the Delta smelt. USFWS first ordered reductions in the pumping of water moved through the Delta in 1992 to protect this threatened minnow. It ordered additional restrictions in 1994, 2000, 2004, and then again in December, 2008, Birmingham says.
The latest population surveys conducted by the Department of Fish and Game found that the abundance of the Delta smelt is at its lowest point since records began to be kept.
Birmingham said, "At some point, as Fish and Game Director Don Koch recently remarked, we have to ask ourselves whether we have been turning a knob that isn't connected to anything."
The reductions in pumping have compounded the impacts of the severe drought that began two years ago. Crop losses due to water shortages totaled $309 million in 2008.
And if the drought persists and the federal restrictions remain in force, experts at the University of California estimate that economic losses will approach $2 billion in 2009 and as many as 80,000 people will lose their jobs.
Those totals account for the losses to agriculture south of the Delta. The overall losses to the economy as a whole will be much larger, Birmingham said.