Bid To Save Fish Could Reduce Water Supply In Calif.

A new effort to save an endangered fish may cut southern California's water supply by as much as 50 percent. To preserve water for the state's Delta Smelt, water is being taken away from farmers and cities such as Los Angeles.

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SIEGEL: A new effort to save an endangered fish may cut southern California's water supply by as much as 50 percent. Preserving the fishes' natural habitat may mean taking water away from farmers and from big cities such as Los Angeles. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: The tiny fish at the center of the state's water wars is the Delta smelt. Not only does it have a funny name, it's not very pretty or commercially viable like the more popular chinook salmon.

Mr. JEFF MILLER (Conservation Advocate, Center for Biological Diversity): Yeah, not a lot of people care about a little two-inch long fish that smells like cucumbers.

KAHN: But Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, says the delta smelt is what's known as an indicator species - the aquatic equivalent of a canary in a coal mine.

Mr. MILLER: And as the Delta smelt goes, so goes the entire ecosystem.

KAHN: That ecosystem is the Bay Delta in northern California, a 1,000 square mile estuary where the state's two largest rivers meet. Much of that water is funneled into the state in federal water projects sending drinking water to millions of residents and irrigating California's farming heartland. But federal biologists say pumping so much water has pushed the smelt toward extinction and could harm the delta beyond repair. That's why the Bush administration recently issued new regulations that could cut in half the amount of water pumped out of the delta. The ruling was hailed by environmentalists, but California's Water Resources Director Lester Snow, says the reduced water output could mean widespread unemployment in the farm belt and major rationing in the cities.

Mr. LESTER SNOW (Director, Department of Water Resources, California): It further restricts water supplies for the state during a period of time when we're concerned about the drought, we're concerned about the economy, and may have some actions in it that aren't very effective in protecting the fish.

KAHN: California's urban centers are used to dealing with the dwindling water supply, but the new regulations limiting delta water would force cities to conserve even more and crack down even harder on wasters.

Mr. DAVID JONES (Conservation Specialist, Department of Water Empower, L.A.): My name is David Jones. We're in the west Los Angeles area of Los Angeles. Right now, we're cruising the streets looking for violators. It's a rainy day. We're looking for people who have their automatic sprinklers on.

KAHN: Jones is a conservation specialist or drought buster for the L.A. Department of Water and Power. For the past year, he's been part of a team of DWP employees finding water wasters in the city.

Mr. JONES: And when I got involved, I really didn't realize how much trouble the state of California was in, but I'm glad to be a part of it.

KAHN: Earlier this year, L.A. increased its fines to as much as $600 for repeat offenders and expanded Jones's staff to respond to more than 3,000 complains each year. But contrast the number of violators to the 20 million residents in southern California's Metropolitan Water District. Jeff Kightlinger, the general manager, says they are conserving and using the same amount of water they did back in 1990, even though the metro area has added four million people since then. Kightlinger says conservation alone isn't the answer to saving the delta.

Mr. JEFF KIGHTLINGER (General Manager, Metropolitan Water District, California): We're on this course where we have a crashing ecosystem and the only thing we're doing is taking away water from businesses and people. And it's not helping the fish.

KAHN: And Kightlinger says it's most likely that the new rules will be challenged in court. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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