Judge imposes water limits to protect Delta fish | SierraSun.com

Judge imposes water limits to protect Delta fish

Juliana Barbassa
Associated Press Writer

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) ” A federal judge on Friday imposed limits on water flows caused by massive pumps sending water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta to users around the state, saying the pumps were drawing in and destroying a threatened fish.

U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger said pressure from the pumps helped reverse the natural direction of water within the estuary, damaging habitat and killing delta smelt, a fish that experts say might be on the brink of extinction.

“The evidence is uncontradicted that these project operations move the fish,” Wanger said after hearing objections from defendants, who had argued that other factors led to the fish’s decline. “It happens, and the law says something has to be done about it.”

Under the ruling, limits would be put in place from the end of December, when the fish are about to spawn, until June, when young fish can move into areas with better habitat and more food.

Wanger also prescribed other measures, such as increased monitoring of the fish’s presence in its adult and juvenile stages at several points in the delta.

Pumps operated by the Central Valley Project _ operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation _ send water to farmers in the agricultural valley south of the delta. The State Water Project _ operated by the California Department of Water Resources _ delivers the water to urban and rural water users as far south as Los Angeles.

The water serves more than 25 million Californians and thousands of acres of crops.

In a year with an average amount of precipitation, about 6 million acre feet of water is pumped from the delta, and up to one-third of that could be lost under Wanger’s order, said Jerry Johns, DWR’s deputy director.

Tim Quinn, who heads the Association of California Water Agencies, said the ruling would have a serious impact in a state already coming off a dry winter and spring. Some districts have already ordered conservation measures and tapped into their water reserves, he said.

“A sober assessment of this says it’s a very large deal,” Quinn said. “We are not only losing supply here, you are greatly compromising the tools we have developed to deal with water shortages.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council and four other environmental groups had asked Wanger to demand an immediate change to the pumping rate to reduce harm to the smelt until a new set of pumping guidelines is expected next year.

Both sides agree the smelt population has declined precipitously. The fish are protected under the California Endangered Species Act, and their well-being is considered a measure of the environmental health of the fragile delta ecosystem.

In May and June, state and federal agencies stopped or slowed down their pumps in an effort to protect the smelt, after the population reached an all-time low. But environmental groups want permanent measures to improve conditions for the fish.

Friday’s decision was complex, and both sides said they needed time to fully understand its impacts. But environmentalists largely welcomed it as an improvement over current conditions.

“It’s better than what there was before,” said Trent Orr, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, which was party to the suit.

But they wanted more, said Orr, including measures that would have protected habitat from encroaching salt from the San Francisco Bay in the fall.

Water contractors who get their supplies from the state and federal projects said the measure would likely curtail their access to water to the point where it would harm rural economies and hamper urban water use.

“Rural communities have an economy based entirely on ag. … This is a huge hit on economies that are already depressed,” said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which serves about 1 million acres of farmland as well as the urban water district in Silicon Valley.

Nelson believed the decision would leave farmers with half the water they were expecting in the coming year and urban users having to make do with the minimum deliveries guaranteed by contract.

The ruling will have “a devastating impact on the state’s economy and the 25 million Californians who depend on Delta water,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “We need to invest in a better conveyance system so we have reliable water supplies and are able to protect the Delta’s fragile ecosystem.”

Schwarzenegger has asked the state Legislature to approve a $5.9 billion bond to build two new dams and study the possibility of building a canal to route fresh water from the Sacramento River around the delta, in part, to protect the fish. But there has been little movement on the issue with lawmakers.

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