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California Water Contracts Can Be Challenged Over Smelt

Long-term water supply contracts in California, which had its driest year on record last year, must be revised to protect smelt in the California River Delta, a federal appeals court ruled today.

The San Francisco-based court ruled for the Natural Resources Defense Council and other conservation groups, saying they had legal standing to challenge the contracts and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages a series of dams and reservoirs that draws water from the delta, had some discretion to help the smelt, which are small, bony fish.

Three years of little rain prompted Governor Jerry Brown, a 76-year-old Democrat seeking a fourth term, to declare a state of emergency in January and call for a voluntary 20 percent cut in water use. Many areas have set mandatory restrictions. Farmers have idled hundreds of thousands of acres, boosting food prices and reducing farm jobs.

The NRDC sued in 2008 challenging 41 contracts directing water mostly to agricultural uses. The contracts were deemed harmful to the smelt, which is native to the delta and was declared threatened in 1993 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the group alleged.

The unanimous ruling today will require the Bureau of Reclamation to potentially reduce the amount of water to contractors, raise fees for using more water or require certain water conservation measures, Trent Orr, an attorney for EarthJustice, said by phone.

The case is NRDC v. Jewell, 09-17661, U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco).

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