It’s amazing how much noise California’s San Joaquin Valley growers make when they get excited.

The cheering, I’m told, could be heard east of the Rockies.

West side could see more water this summer

Don Schrack
Staff Writer

Well, maybe not quite that far.

The excitement out in this here California precinct stems from a federal judge’s ruling that the pumps sending water to the valley and on to Southern California must remain on line.

More specifically, the judge ruled the management plan to protect salmon — a plan that included shutting off the pumps — was initiated without an environmental analysis.

That’s a no-no. The analysis is required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

But before retailers and consumers start planning on 3-for-$1 cantaloupes and lettuce and tomatoes just as cheap this summer, there are a few more roadblocks the irrigation districts must overcome.

The restraining order against the management plan is but a two-week long halt. More hearings are scheduled for March as water users push to have the salmon management plan rewritten.

The courts must also wrestle with the delta smelt matter that further reduced pumping.

Court rulings

Still, there is room for optimism, evidenced by a statement from Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority:

“The temporary restraining order … recognizes that the salmon biological opinion that was sending water to the Pacific Ocean instead of going into storage for use by farms and 25 million Californians did not take into account the harm caused to people and the human environment.”

He went on to say:

“The principle the court applied is very clear. The judge found that the federal agencies should have considered alternatives that would still adequately protect the fish while causing less harm to people.”

In short, the judge put people back on par with fish.

Among the issues that seemed to have affected the ruling was a finding by the California Department of Fish and Game that the number of juvenile winter run salmon killed in the pumps in January was about 35% of the maximum allowed by the management plan.

It was an indication, perhaps, that the plan was too far reaching and/or based on estimates not supported by science.

The temporary halt is doubly encouraging because legal precedent, according to attorneys for the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, mandates that temporary restraining orders may not be issued unless “there is a likelihood of success on the merits of the case” for a permanent injunction.

Extra water

Also bringing a few smiles to the faces of valley growers: the realization that two weeks of pumping will generate about 50,000 acre feet of water for the growers and the throngs in Southern California.

Remember, they have endured a three-year drought compounded by the pumping restrictions that fallowed 500,000 acres of valley farmland last year.

The two weeks of pumping will deliver water supplies that growers will not have to pump from wells or purchase from other, wetter districts in the state. Some estimates put the growers’ savings at above $10 million.

As I said early on, don’t start counting on enough west side irrigation water to produce bumper crops this year. Courts don’t exactly move at the speed of bullet trains here on the left coast.

The judge’s ruling is just the latest chapter in a litigation saga that began nearly two years ago.

Mother Nature is helping a bit, however. Valley rainfall is averaging about three-fourths of an inch above normal so far this season.


What's your take on California's ongoing water issues? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.