The federal government and water contractors have agreed to a temporary truce in the perennial delta smelt wars, consenting to a settlement that for the next four months relaxes restrictions on the pumping operations that help supply water to Southern California.
The agreement, announced Thursday, comes in an ongoing court fight over federal Endangered Species Act protections for smelt and salmon that have tightened the spigot on water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
In December, a federal judge concluded that the rationale for some of the smelt protections was flawed and ordered the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to rewrite the document that regulates pumping from the delta.
The settlement, which will remain in effect until the end of June, loosens one of the key triggers for pumping restrictions. It also gives water contractors and environmental organizations a role in the weekly meetings that federal agencies use to review delta conditions and decide if pumping should be limited.
It's unclear what practical effect the agreement will have because the pumping curbs are triggered by unpredictable delta conditions; no curbs have been imposed so far this year. Restrictions designed to protect migrating salmon remain unchanged, although they, too, are the subject of litigation.
"We think it's pretty limited to being an experiment," said Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's no guarantee of more pumping or less pumping."
The prospect of at least a few months' relief from courtroom battles nonetheless cheered officials.
"I am pleased that the water users, environmental community, and federal and state officials collaborated to resolve operational issues through the end of June — the most critical time of the year," said David Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Interior Department.
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which imports supplies from the delta, said the settlement should allow the agency to receive this year's deliveries "without undue burden from restrictions to protect delta smelt."