A federal judge in Fresno affirmed Friday that water diversions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have jeopardized the existence of California’s beleaguered salmon.
It was the latest in a string of rulings ordering state and federal regulators to fix a water system that supplies millions of Californians with water but is all but dysfunctional when it comes to protecting fisheries and the environment.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger told the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources to come up with ways to protect salmon and steelhead trout, but declined to order any immediate remedies.
Wanger’s 118-page ruling was issued as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and several other environmental organizations accusing the government of endangering salmon and steelhead. The plaintiffs had asked the judge to immediately curtail water diversions.
“We are frustrated that the court denied our requests,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer for the council. “We want to assure that the water projects are operated to sustain fisheries and farming. The court’s decision shows that management has not achieved that balance. The system is really out of balance, and the court’s opinion recognizes that what’s happening right now puts salmon and steelhead in danger of extinction.”
The plan now is to hold more court hearings on what to do about the problem before March 2009, when the bureau is required to issue a new “biological opinion” outlining its plans to deliver water and at the same time protect winter- and spring-run chinook and steelhead trout in the Sacramento River.
Wanger had ruled in April that water regulators failed to consider the effects of global warming and other environmental issues related to the decline of California salmon when they approved increased pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
The decision invalidated the original biological opinion that said the salmon would not be adversely affected by pumping.
The report comes amid a statewide fisheries crisis. The number of salmon in the ocean plummeted this year, prompting a ban of fishing all along the California and Oregon coasts.
Some marine biologists claim the problem resulted from a lack of nutrients in the ocean caused by global warming, but most fisheries experts believe the biggest impact is from dams, diversions and development along the Sacramento River system, which is the primary spawning grounds.
However, curtailing water diversions means cutting back on the flow of drinking water for 25 million Californians and irrigation for 750,000 acres of cropland.
California’s state and federal water project was established about 100 years ago and is an integral part of the state’s infrastructure. Changing it would become a political football up and down the state, affecting the economy as well as the environment.
Still, even those who have interests in water rights and support diversions admit the state’s water distribution system is in turmoil.
“Everyone is realizing the delta is broken and there needs to be some kind of fix that will meet the needs of the citizens who receive water as well as for the environment,” said Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, an agricultural area representing farmers who produce 60 commodities, including most of the state’s lettuce, almonds, tomatoes, pistachios and grapes.
“We need some sort of conveyance around the delta,” Woolf said. “Everything is pointing to a peripheral canal as the solution.”
The water fight started in February 2005 when environmentalists sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the agency issued an opinion saying delta smelt would not be harmed by water diversions. The council and its co-plaintiffs challenged the biological opinion for salmon and steelhead a couple months after the delta smelt lawsuit was filed.
The Natural Resources Defense Council urged Wanger to require the bureau to open the gates of the Red Bluff Diversion Dam earlier than normal. The dam is usually closed on Memorial Day to create a lake for boat racing and other festivities. Water from the lake is then diverted for farmers and other users through an irrigation channel.
Obegi said juvenile salmon heading downstream get caught behind the dam and are eaten by predatory fish.
“When the dam is in, the fish get concentrated,” he said. “They go down the fish ladders on the side and the predators know exactly where the fish are coming and wait there. It’s like serving them up on a dinner plate.”
Environmentalists also wanted Wanger to impose minimum stream flows on Clear Creek to store more water in Lake Shasta to make sure there is adequate flow year-round and to increase the amount of spawning habitat by releasing colder water farther downstream.
The judge apparently decided not to grant the council’s requests because the defendants already had agreed to some operational changes, including opening the Red Bluff Diversion Dam slightly earlier than originally planned and increasing flows on Clear Creek, near Red Bluff, to better protect salmon and steelhead.
The latest hubbub comes in the wake of a ruling last year to protect the endangered delta smelt. That decision was attacked by lobbying groups for 400 agencies that deliver the state’s water. They claimed cropland would go fallow and cities in the Tri-Valley, Santa Clara County, Los Angeles and other areas of the state would have to institute mandatory rationing programs to deal with the water cutbacks.
Drought conditions have combined with the water situation to make some of those concerns a reality.
“We’ve abandoned thousands of acres of crops, and hundred of jobs have been lost for farmworkers this year,” Woolf said.
“Project operations through March 2009 will appreciably increase jeopardy to the three species. … All three testifying experts … conclude that the three salmonid species are not viable and are all in jeopardy of extinction. Based on two drought years, with critically dry hydrologic conditions in 2008, and the presently unpredictable risk of a third dry year, the three species are unquestionably in jeopardy.”
– Judge Oliver Wanger