Framework announced for plan that could end Californian water disputes

The Governor of California, Gray Davis, and US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt have published a layed out a 'framework' for a multibillion dollar plan to improve environmental protection, water quality and water reliability in California. Supporters claim the programme could relegate the state's long tradition of fighting over water to the history books. Environmentalists, on the other hand, claim the document could lead to further degradation of an already damaged ecosystem.

The CALFED Bay-Delta Program, which initially calls for more than $8 billion to be invested over a seven year period, focuses on the restoration of the Bay-Delta ecosystem and pledges to improve water quality, enhance water supply reliability, assure long-term stability for agricultural, urban and environmental uses and provide long-term protection for Delta levees. In Southern California, the main aim of the plan is to stabilise the region’s supply so that water rationing is less likely.

A final CALFED plan will be drafted over the coming few months. A final decision is expected after August. Congress and the Legislature have yet to ratify key parts of the plan.

The Bay-Delta system supplies drinking water for more than 22 million people, irrigation water for more than seven million acres (2.8 million ha) of farmland and supports over 450 fish and wildlife species.

“As the largest comprehensive ecosystem restoration effort in the world, the CALFED Action Plan will generate significant economic and ecosystem benefits for the State of California,” said Babbitt. “The Action Plan represents the culmination of several years of federal-state and stakeholder co-operation and a significant milestone for one of the Administration’s top priorities.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) praised CALFED as the best attempt to find a comprehensive approach to the region’s water problems. Ann Notthoff, director of California advocacy for NRDC, said there are a number of areas where the document represents a significant step forward. These include funding for ecosystem restoration, investments in water use efficiency and steps toward effective groundwater management.

However, she warned that proposals to build or raise dams and increase diversions from overtapped rivers, limits on protections for endangered species, and reductions in the amount of water provided for fisheries restoration as required by federal law could lead to further degradation of the ecosystem.

“Developing a final plan will require broader input from Californians,” said Notthoff. “We look forward to a greater involvement in developing the visionary programme that California needs and deserves.”

Plan highlights include:

  • an ecosystem restoration project that will provide funding for hundreds of restoration projects and incentive programmes to reduce runoff and improve water conservation
  • investments in water storage projects to improve water quality and offer flexibility for coping with periods of high and low rainfall
  • investment in loan and grant projects designed to improve water efficiency and in conservation methods
  • the creation of an Environmental Water Account to ensure the environment is provided with its own dedicated water supply
  • modifications and improvements to the water transport system throughout the Delta
  • improved rules for water transfer, making it easier for cities to buy water from farmers

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