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Monday, April 21, 2008

Study backing more water exports to Southern California is nullified

A judge says the report failed to account for effects on endangered salmon and steelhead trout.

By Eric Bailey, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 17, 2008,1,1938847.story


SACRAMENTO -- A federal judge Wednesday invalidated a plan that justified boosted water exports from Northern California, ruling that it failed to account for the effects on endangered salmon and steelhead.

U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger of Fresno found that a 2004 study by the National Marine Fisheries Service didn't adequately address global warming, the loss of habitat and other factors that could hurt the fish.

But the effect of his 151-page opinion on water exports for farms and Southern California cities won't be decided until further court hearings starting late this month.

"This decision should prove very big for the fish," said Michael Sherwood, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm representing commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental groups and the Winnemem Wintu tribe of Mount Shasta.

Wanger's ruling is the second setback in the last year for federal biologists and California's water managers. In August, the judge ordered a shift in operations that could cut water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta by 30%.

The decision comes days after federal regulators canceled the 2008 salmon fishing season because of a sharp decline in the Sacramento River's fall-run chinook salmon, the backbone of the commercial industry.

Wanger's decision addresses an ongoing crisis for two other chinook salmon species, the winter and spring runs, and Central Valley steelhead trout. Once collectively numbering in the millions, the three endangered fish have seen their populations plummet -- in the case of the winter-run chinooks to fewer than 200 returning adults in 1994. The fish have been hit hard by water pollution, predators and dams that have blocked spawning grounds and boosted river temperatures.

Though the judge's decision might further curb delta exports, a more likely result is operational changes 250 miles to the north at Shasta Dam, experts on both sides said.

Cradling the state's biggest reservoir, the dam traditionally releases most of its water down the Sacramento River and onward to the delta in late summer and fall. But environmentalists have pushed for more cold-water releases to help the struggling runs of salmon and steelhead.

Sherwood of Earthjustice said the ruling could mark "a turning point" in operations by the state and federal water projects, which redid the California landscape in the 20th century to move water from the wet north to farms and communities in the south.

Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Shasta Dam as part of the federal water project, said it was too soon to decipher the decision's fallout.

"There will be no impacts until the judge tells us we have to do something differently," he said. "At this point we haven't gotten there."

Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the nonprofit State Water Contractors, said the ruling underscored the importance of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, an effort underway in Sacramento to spotlight ways to heal the delta while fixing the water delivery system.

"We can't continue to have the water system of our state remain at the mercy of every individual endangered species," she said. "We need a comprehensive plan."

Lester Snow, state Department of Water Resources chief, agreed that the ruling was "further evidence that the delta is teetering on the brink of collapse," noting that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had proposed a slate of solutions.

Among the fixes being eyed is construction of the long-debated Peripheral Canal, which would divert water around the delta and onward to Southern California. The proposal has been condemned by environmentalists and others who say it would rob the delta of the water it needs for fish to survive.

This spring's dry weather has already cut state water reserves. The Metropolitan Water District, the state's largest, is calling on residents to step up conservation efforts such as not watering their lawns one day a week.

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