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Environmental Issues Fuel California’s Water Wars

Southern California is coping with water shortages due to a judge's ruling limiting the amount of freshwater that can be pumped from the northern part of the state. Environmental advocates, concerned about the effect on wildlife, lead the battle over water.

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  • SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent:

    As fires raced over the parched Southern California landscape burning homes and ruining crops, the culprits most often blamed for the disaster were fierce Santa Ana winds and the lack of rain.

    Water is the lifeblood of Southern California, where two-thirds of the state's people live, and this has been the driest year on record. To make things worse, a federal judge ordered that less water be pumped from the northern to the southern part of the state, a decision that is exacerbating the water shortage and has forced some communities to put restrictions on outdoor water use.

    The judge made his ruling because of what's been happening in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, east of San Francisco, where most of California's freshwater passes on its way either to the ocean or to farms and cities to the south. Nearly every day, state fish and game biologists troll here for fish.

    DAVE CONTRERAS, California Department of Fish and Game: Yes, they all appear to be American shad.


    They were hoping to find one particular fish in their nets, the delta smelt, a tiny, short-lived fish that is a federally protected species.


    … 53, 52…


    But after spending a whole day on the boat, not a single smelt was found.


    Nowadays, delta smelt are pretty hard to catch. Like in the 1970s, they used to be one of the most abundant fish around, so it's kind of scary now.


    Environmental groups cite the disappearance of the smelt as evidence that powerful pumps that suck up delta water and send it south via massive canals were chewing up and killing the fish. And not just the smelt is at risk, says Bill Bennett, a research ecologist at the University of California at Davis who studies the fish.

    BILL BENNETT, University of California, Davis: This fish has clearly become, I would say, a lightning rod or poster child for an assemblage of species that live in the low salinity zone of the delta. And in the last few years, these populations have pretty much hit rock bottom.