The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand critical habitat areas for the Santa Ana Sucker into the dry areas north of the I-10 freeway “will literally shut down a good deal of the inland area’s economy if allowed to stand,” according to John Husing, a Redlands based economist who has studied the region for 47 years.

“The consequences of this ruling would be devastating,” Dr. Husing said, “given that our 13.9 percent unemployment is already the highest among the 49 major U.S. metropolitan areas.”

Water agency documents filed with Service before the ruling indicated that it could annually mean the loss of 125,800-acre feet of San Bernardino Mountain water. As a result, Inland water providers could be forced to spend at least $2.9 billion in ratepayer money over the next 25 years for additional imported water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, assuming that water would be available.

Public documents issued by the Service dismissed the loss of the water and estimated the cost to the Inland Empire at only $12 million over 25 years.

Local water agencies, however, believe that it is highly unlikely that state water would be available to replace the local supply, given restrictions on the State Water Project from the Service’s actions to protect the Delta Smelt. In this context, water agencies say, the Service’s actions are especially damaging.

Even this year, despite a huge Sierra snowpack, existing restrictions on Delta pumping mean the state will only be able to fill 70 percent of state water allocation requests. It was much less in prior years.

“If the Santa Ana Sucker ruling takes away our mountain water, and the Delta Smelt stops the buying of replacement water, then under California Law our water agencies cannot certify any major new construction projects,” Dr. Husing said. That law requires water agencies to certify availability of a 20-year water supply before new housing, retail, office or industrial projects can move ahead.

“Today, the Inland Empire is the only place able to accommodate Southern California’s long-term growth. If this ruling stands, it would have the effect of making our construction depression permanent, with horrendous consequences for the Southland’s long-term prosperity,” Dr. Husing concluded.

Impact on economy

Moreover, a region with higher water costs and unstable supplies would be less attractive for business investment, which means fewer jobs in an economy that desperately needs them.

Pat Milligan, president of San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, added, “Fish and Wildlife is already playing havoc with the Central Valley’s economy with its Delta Smelt rulings. This would do the same here, with 3 million people affected. All this so we can have water flowing in an area that has been dry nine to 11 months a year for at least a century. This is unconscionable.”

“The Service’s position is that Southern California’s importation of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta adversely impacts the Delta Smelt, among other species,” Milligan continued. “But when we seek to make better use of our local water supplies from the Santa Ana River and its tributaries, the Service issues a rule that prevents us from doing so. It’s as if the Service is playing ‘Gotcha!’ But this isn’t a game. The lives and livelihoods of Southern California’s residents are at stake here.”

In May of 2010, inland water agencies provided Dr. Husing’s economic analysis to Industrial Economics Inc., a consulting firm used by the Service to analyze the economic impact of the proposed expanded Sucker habitat area. In their 60-day notice of intent to file suit against the Service’s ruling, water agencies said much of the data included in Dr. Husing’s report was either never considered or side-stepped by the Service. In particular, the Service completely omitted any impact of California’s 20-year water supply rule on the region’s economic health.

Agencies that co-signed that 60-notice include Bear Valley Mutual Water Company in Redlands; Big Bear Municipal Water District in Big Bear Lake; City of Redlands; City of Riverside Public Utilities; City of San Bernardino Municipal Water Department; East Valley Water District in Highland; Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District; San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District; San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District; Western Municipal Water District in Riverside; West Valley Water District in Rialto; and Yucaipa Valley Water District.