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Story and photo by Miriam Raftery

February 24, 2009 (San Diego)--State Senator Dennis Hollingsworth, who represents East County, has joined 27 other Republicans in signing a letter to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging him to call upon the President and the Secretary of the Interior to convene the Endangered Species Committee, which the GOP has dubbed the "God Squad." The letter requests an appeal of water restrictions mandated by a federal court to protect the Delta smelt. But now a new federal study reveals that if Hollingsworth's plan is approved,lifting those restrictions would endanger killer whales as well as fish.

"Every drop of water is a valuable commodity in California and it is crucial that we protect what little we have," stated Hollingsworth. "We are not only facing a natural drought, but one that is court-imposed, which will only worsen our current economic situation and impact many California communities and farmers who are already facing severe water restrictions."

Under the provisions of a 1978 amendment of The Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Governor may convene a committee of seven Cabinet level members called the Endangered Species Committee to hear exemptions from the ESA's stringent provisions. Following two years of drought and the current dismal snowpack, California's water reserves have dwindled and court-ordered water delivery restrictions to protect fish have diminished supplies from the state's two largest water systems by almost 30 percent.

"The Governor has wisely directed state agencies and departments to take immediate action to address the serious drought conditions that exist in California," concluded Hollingsworth. "Republicans in the Legislature are hopeful he will take further action and request that the federal government intervene on our behalf as well."

About one-third of San Diego's water supply comes from the delta. Reductions in pumping to protect fish since 2007 have already resulted in a significant decline in availability of water for San Diego and other regions, including agricultural areas.

But Hollingsworth's press release fails to mention a just-released study by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which reveals that pumping billions of gallons of water from the San Joaquin Delta to other parts of the state endangers not only delta smelt, but also threatens salmon and in turn, killer whales that prey upon the fish. Young fish get sucked up by the massive pumps, which have killed off delta smelt to the verge of extinction. http://voiceofsandiego.org/articles/2009/02/23/environment/856whales0222...

Last year, salmon populations off the west coast fell to historic lows--and delta pumping is to blame, federal authorities concluded. Killer whales migrate north from California to Washington and British Columbia, where massive die-offs of the whales were reported last year. Puget Sound's unique species of killer whales now numbers just 85; the marine mammals are listed as endangered (see photo of Puget Sound killer whale).

Now some San Diego water officials are reviving an old proposal: build a Peripheral Canal to bring water to Southern California and bypass the most sensitive habitats, a proposal that has sparked controversies of its own: http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/articles/2007/09/29/environment/922deltat... .

The National Marine Fisheries Service conducted its evaluation after being sued by a consortium of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Bay Institute. A March 2 court hearing in Fresno will determine what steps will be taken next.

"This certainly points to the interconnected ecosystem," said Maria Rea, supervisor of the service's Sacramento office, Voice of San Diego reported. "The whales are here and part of California's ecosystem."

National award-winning journalist Miriam Raftery holds a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara.