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Water District Pulls Out Of Delta Coalition

Nov 24, 2010

Stockton Record

Westlands Water District, a major player in the plan to build a peripheral canal or tunnel, is yanking its support because the district fears it will receive no additional water with the roughly $9 billion to $12 billion piece of infrastructure.

To be sure, the sprawling farm district on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley still wants a canal to take Delta water.

But Westlands also wants assurance that if it helps foot the bill, growers will be compensated with more water than they currently receive.

Tensions have grown in recent weeks. Westlands reportedly walked out of a Nov. 10 meeting with Interior Department officials in Washington; then, in a letter Monday, the water district accused Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes of siding with special interests and politically interfering with development of the conservation plan.

Westlands says the federal officials are proposing even more rigorous restrictions on how much water can be sent south - a claim the Interior Department denies.

"In short, it is our view that your myopic and unscientific obstructionism will bring this entire effort at water reform and ecosystem restoration to a halt," Westlands board President Jean P. Sagouspe wrote to Hayes.

The concern, a Westlands representative said last week, is that millions of dollars are being spent on a plan that ultimately will not be approved by federal wildlife agencies. Westlands and other water exporters have spent nearly $150 million to date on development of the conservation plan, the district says.

Another player, the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority, is expected to consider today whether to continue funding. Still others remain at the table - for now.

"We certainly understand and share Westlands' frustrations with the process so far, but we're hanging in there," said Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors, a group of water districts serving mostly urban areas from the Bay Area to San Diego.

In a written statement Tuesday, the Interior Department called Westlands' letter "baseless and without any factual foundation." It also denied the claim that the federal government is considering making pumping restrictions even more rigorous.

"The (Bay Delta Conservation Plan) process is still ongoing with the utmost urgency and with the intensive participation of the federal government, the state of California and all other entities who are committed to moving forward in a constructive manner," said Matt Lee-Ashley, the Interior Department's communications director.

Delta advocate Dick Pool, who attended the Nov. 10 meeting in Washington, said it was clear Interior was concerned about meeting the "coequal goals" of a reliable water supply for two-thirds of California and an improved Delta ecosystem.

"It was stated a number of times that we first of all have to determine the changes that are needed to recover the Delta and recover the fish," Pool said. "That determines what (water) remains for export.

"(Westlands') objective is more water," Pool added. "That's what they've been pushing for, and if the fish don't recover, so be it."

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, four years in the making, includes not only a canal or tunnel to bypass the Delta but also conversion of tens of thousands of acres of farmland into habitat.

Many questions remain, though, including how much water a canal should divert.

State law requires California to reduce its reliance on the Delta. But Westlands argues that it should receive neither less water nor the same amount, but more than is currently pumped from the estuary.

The district once enjoyed an average annual supply of 95 percent of its contracted amount, spokeswoman Sarah Woolf said. The Central Valley Project Improvement Act in 1992 dedicated more water for fish, bringing Westlands' reliability down to about 65 percent.

Fish continued to decline, and new rules approved by federal fish agencies over the past two years reduced Westlands' supplies even more, to about 25 to 45 percent.

Westlands believes the conservation plan should restore its water supplies to about 70 percent on average, Woolf said.

"We're not asking for 100 percent," she said. "We're asking for a level of reliability that is sustainable."

But in September, a group of federal biologists wrote that they believed the conservation plan might actually drive one species, the Delta smelt, toward extinction, though other scientists apparently disagreed.

Westlands has dismissed the report.

Despite the district's claims of political meddling by the Obama administration, Westlands representative Jason Peltier told an Assembly committee last week that political appointees should actually be more involved in scientific decisions and not merely leave them to "midlevel biologists."

"I think the world is much bigger than the word of a few biologists," Peltier said.

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or abreitler@recordnet.com. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/breitlerblog.

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