A coalition of environmental groups, commercial and sport fishermen filed suit today in California Superior Court to force the State Water Resources Control Board to implement protective measures for chinook salmon required under federal and state law. Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund is asking the State Water Resources Control Board to rewrite a March 15, 2000, decision allocating water rights along the San Joaquin River. The suit was filed on behalf of The Bay Institute, Save San Francisco Bay Association, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources and United Anglers of California.
At issue is the 1995 Basin Plan that includes a mandate to provide water flows sufficient to support a doubling of chinook salmon populations. Science, say the groups, shows the allotment made by the Water Board on March 15 will not enable a doubling of chinook salmon. The allotments, claim the plaintiffs, would actually allow the salmon to continue their slide toward extinction. Adult chinook salmon dropped from 118,000 individuals in 1969 to just 533 in 1989. Likewise, the population of delta smelt, an indicator species of the Delta's health, fell 90 percent during the 1980s.
"The 1995 Basin Plan was clear," said Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, referring to the decades-old struggle over how to apportion the annual runoff from the Sierra Nevada. "Recovery of salmon and other disappearing fish in the San Joaquin River must be a priority when making allotments. The Water Board's decision is a major step backward for the environment and we believe it won't stand up in court."
Mike Sherwood, the Earthjustice attorney representing the groups said, "The March 15 decision was supposed to implement the 1995 Basin Plan's doubling objective, but it failed to do so. All the evidence presented to the Water Board agreed that much higher flows would be needed to have a decent shot at doubling salmon populations. Somehow, the Water Board chose to ignore the science."
The plaintiffs believe that the doubling mandate is the only real indicator in the Basin Plan that will tell when the ecosystem is recovering. "Native salmon is one of California's greatest resources and it is a tragedy that we have decimated this fishery over the last few decades. The State did the right thing when it established water quality standards to bring the salmon back -- now it must come through on that commitment," said Cynthia Koehler, an attorney for Save The Bay who represented the environmental groups before the Board.
"By working together, we can restore these fisheries. But without the adequate flows to the estuary, mandated by law, this will not be possible. Remember, when we're talking about extinction, that means forever," said Grant Davis of the Bay Institute.
Environmental groups, commercial and sport fishermen are also concerned that if the water board decision is allowed to stand, the forthcoming water rights decision for the Sacramento River will also fail to implement the doubling standard for native salmon.