Despite average precipitation this year, Californians might be experiencing a water shortage.
As snow melts in the Sierra Nevadas this spring, that water collects in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, which traverse the state to the San Francisco Bay. Pumps at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta supplies water to the California Aqueduct, which provides water to agricultural fields in the Central Valley and large parts of Southern California.
However, the pumping stations have been limited this year by a court order, the result of a legal case brought against the federal government by the Natural Resources Defense Council. In December of last year, a judge in Fresno ordered restrictions placed on pumping in 2008 to protect the delta smelt.
The delta smelt is a small fish that lives exclusively in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It has been classified as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and by the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, making its protection necessary by law.
At one time, the smelt was so common in the Delta that it was caught by net, but over the past couple of years, the fish has experienced a population collapse. The 2007 survey found only one-tenth the quantity of smelt in the delta as were found in 2006, which was already a record low.
“The effect [that reduced pumping] has on the [San Francisco] Bay would be additional inflow that will be spread out over a couple months,” said Jerry Johns, deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources Delta and Statewide Water Management.
This was the intended goal of the court order, which hoped to increase the amount of fresh water in the delta. The fluctuations between fresh water and salt water in the delta are essential to smelt breeding habits, according to an article by Mike Sherwood on earthjustice.org.
As for the effect on the rest of the state, the cutbacks on pumping are sizable.
“In terms of water costs, they’re probably around 650,000 to 700,000 acre-feet lost,” Johns said, citing preliminary estimates. He said these numbers could be subject to change.
According to the State Water Contractors website, an organization which represents the interests of public agencies that purchase water from the state, each acre-foot of water is sufficient to meet the average needs of two families for a full year.
As a result of the restrictions, public water agencies will be receiving only 35 percent of their usual annual allocation of water.
The resulting conditions this summer are technically not a drought.
“A drought is a multiyear event. One year doesn’t make a drought,” Johns said.
Nonetheless, this summer is expected to look and feel like a drought.
“The last time we had a water supply this low was in 1991, which was a drought year. So it’s like a drought,” Johns said.
The decreased pumping will not affect the Davis area, though. Davis receives its water supply from 22 wells located in and around the city that tap aquifers deep beneath the ground.
“Our recharge [the re-supply of water to the aquifers] is coming from the coastal ranges,” said Marie Graham of the Davis Public Works Department. “Our system is not hydrologically connected to the delta or the Sacramento River.”
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