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Environmental laws wedge state into hydrological corner

Over the past 40 years, California has slowly painted itself into a corner by reprioritizing water supplies to the environment while ignoring the need for improving our water supply, infrastructure and storage.

By failing to invest in adequate water infrastructure and storage such as the Peripheral Canal and Temperance Flat Dam, next year California may well face the worst water shortage in its history. Our growing state is ill-equipped to cope with dry years that bring decreased rainfall and reduced snowpack.

In addition, court decisions based on the Endangered Species Act have further cut our water supplies -- reallocating water to fish and taking it from agricultural needs. These factors combined this past year to create a "perfect storm" and even led to water rationing in some districts. Next year may very likely be worse, particularly given how low our stored water supply is due to last year's shortages.

Most recently, in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Kempthorne, a federal judge ordered pumping from the two Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumps to be reduced by one-third from December through June due to Endangered Species Act protections on the diminishing population of the delta smelt, a two- to three-inch fish that lives only in the delta. Despite the absence of conclusive scientific data to suggest the delta pumps are the cause of the decline in population, the ESA still mandates reduced pumping, which last year resulted in 900,000 acre- feet of water lost to the ocean. This is already having a devastating effect on the Central Valley's agriculture industry and could soon lead to water rationing in Southern California households.

State and federal contracts provide for export of up to 7.5 million acre-feet of water from the delta pumps each year. About 83 percent of this water is used for agriculture and the remainder for urban uses in central and Southern California.

Further, more than two-thirds of California's population get at least a portion of its drinking water from the delta. It would be irresponsible for any public official to allow the pumps to sit idle again this year as thousands of acre-feet of water flow toward the ocean.

We can no longer afford to succumb to irrational environmental policies and judicial decisions. It is time for action. It is time to identify the problem and implement a solution.

One of the main problems is the Endangered Species Act and its lack of flexibility in light of the drastic impact of its mandates on the economy of an entire state, and, most importantly, on human beings and their livelihoods. The immediate solution on this front is the bipartisan legislation that we introduced last week with other members of the California delegation. The California Drought Alleviation Act gives the secretary of the interior the ability to temporarily exempt the delta pumps from the ESA during times of extreme water shortage -- such as now -- in order to fill reservoirs to provide for agriculture and urban use.

Additionally, the CDAA protects the delta smelt by ordering the secretary of the interior to work in cooperation with the state Department of Fish and Game to develop a "conservation fishery" with the goal of preserving the smelt until we learn more about what is harming the population and how to best preserve it.

Californians are tired of the divisive politics of water. No longer can they afford political gamesmanship on an issue of such far-reaching importance. They need a consistent water supply to provide for their families, sustain jobs, fuel our economy and continue California's tradition as the breadbasket of this country.

Congress needs to pass the CDAA, temporarily suspend the ESA and allow the delta pumping stations to store water in the San Luis Reservoir and prepare California for what could be a devastating 2009 for agriculture and urban water users.

We are ready and willing to continue to work toward a long-term solution to California's water needs, but in the meantime we cannot afford to let our state dry up and blow away simply for the sake of protecting a few small fish.

George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, represents California's 19th Congressional District, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, represents the 20th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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              Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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