It’s farmers vs. fish for California water

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Supporters of California agriculture called on the Obama administration and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday to lift water restrictions that were imposed to protect the endangered delta smelt, saying the fish is putting farmers out of business.

The Pacific Legal Foundation presented a “Save Our Water” petition with 12,000 signatures at a Sacramento news conference, calling on Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, to request that the Obama administration convene the federal Endangered Species Committee, also known as the “God Squad,” to remove the water curbs.

“California should be known for the Rose Bowl, not a dust bowl. But there’s a danger of a dust bowl being created in the Central Valley by extreme [Endangered Species Act] regulations,” said foundation President Rob Rivett. “Instead of stimulating jobs, federal environmental officials are turning recession into depression and stimulating economic hardship for businesses, farms and families.”

State Rep. George Radanovich, a Republican from the hard-hit San Joaquin Valley, said that“when it comes to water policy, humans come before fish.”

The God Squad is a rarely invoked but potentially powerful provision within the Endangered Species Act that lets the committee override species protections in cases of economic emergency.

During a trip to the Central Valley in June, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appeared to reject the idea.

Convening the committee, Mr. Salazar said, “would be to admit failure, it would defeat ecosystem restoration efforts. It has been rarely invoked and usually leads to litigation,” according to Aquafornia.com, a Web site on the state’s water issues.

As a result, proponents of emergency action are urging Mr. Schwarzenegger to throw his clout behind the idea and make the request to the Interior Department on behalf of the state.

Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said the governor had sent requests for reconsultation on the smelt and chinook salmon to the Interior and Commerce departments.

“The governor would look at the God Squad as indication that the federal government isn’t responding. It’s an action of last resort,” Mr. Snow said. “It rarely works the way anyone wants it to. What the governor wants is a strong federal partner.”

Nobody doubts the economic devastation to the Central Valley. The unemployment rate in agriculture communities ranges from 20 percent to 40 percent, while 250,000 acres of farmland are lying fallow or dying. The region’s agricultural output is expected to decline by between $1 billion and $3 billion this year over last, according to estimates by agricultural and business groups.

Whether the delta smelt is to blame lies at the heart of the debate. While some blame the fish for the severe reductions in pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, others argue that the region’s three-year drought is primarily to blame.

Some environmentalists say the agriculture industry needs to adapt to the reduced water supply and live within its means.

“Big Ag must now learn to do more with less,” campaigner Brian Smith wrote on Earthjustice.org. “The days of copious taxpayer-subsidized water exports from the Delta are coming to an end. And the idea of killing off numerous native fish species, decimating Northern California fishing communities and turning the Delta into a fetid swamp is simply not allowed under federal law.”

The situation for farmers is likely to get worse before it gets better. Federal regulators are poised to enact more water restrictions to protect the chinook salmon, the steelhead and other fish. Estimates are that the cutbacks could result in the removal of 500,000 acre-feet of water.

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