U.S. to review California water diversion rulings

SAN FRANCISCO Mon Nov 9, 2009 4:06pm EST

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - U.S. officials said on Monday they would reconsider new environmental mandates requiring California to divert water from drought-stricken farms and cities to help endangered fish in rivers and on the coast.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and others in the state strongly oppose the diversions, arguing that they could damage the state's agricultural sector, the largest in the country, and add to California's woes during an economic slowdown.

California is the richest economy in the United States.

In a conference call with reporters, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said the non-profit National Academy of Sciences, which occasionally advises Washington, will review two federal reports backing the diversions by March 15, 2010.

Salazar, however, said water would continue to be diverted during the review and added that he agreed with the biological rulings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which backed the idea.

The agencies took action in the wake of federal court rulings ordering California to do more to protect salmon, smelt and other fish endangered by diversion of water to human uses.

The state once teemed with salmon, but its commercial fishing season has been called off for two consecutive years due to low numbers of fish. The tiny smelt is in peril due to environmental changes in the Sacramento Delta and San Francisco Bay.

California, the most populous U.S. state and the nation's largest economy, is a key battleground for environmentalists and industry, who differ over how to allocate the state's scarce water supplies.

The state is in its third consecutive year of drought.

California's legislature last week passed a major plan to overhaul water resources and protect the Sacramento Delta wetlands, which empty into San Francisco Bay, are a key water source and are seen as an ecosystem in trouble.

(Editing by Paul Simao)

(for more environmental news see our Environment blog at blogs.reuters.com/environment)

(Reporting by Peter Henderson)