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Court Finalizes Order to Protect Bay-Delta, Smelt and Water Supply for Millions of Californians

Victory: Plaintiffs hope it's not too late to restore ailing estuary, as biologists see record collapse in fishery numbers
December 14, 2007
Fresno, CA —

In a final written order issued late today, a federal judge in Fresno set new rules that will help protect the West Coast's largest estuary from being further degraded by fresh water diversions, according to conservation and fishing groups that sued to protect a tiny fish, the delta smelt.


The final written order by Judge Oliver W. Wanger of the U.S. District Court in Fresno puts in place a decision he initially made on August 31. The judge's order in Case 1:05-cv-01207-OWW-GSA is available here.


The order follows a May 2007 decision that a government assessment of the risk to threatened fish from massive pumps in the San Francisco Bay Delta was illegal and must be rewritten. State and federal water project managers relied on the "biological opinion" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to justify increased water exports to farms and cities south of the delta.


"This order, while not perfect, will help improve the health of the San Francisco Bay-Delta by allowing more fresh water to remain in the system," said Trent Orr of Earthjustice. "Whether we know it or not, every Californian depends on keeping the delta healthy, so doing everything we can to protect this resource is just common sense."


The delta is the hub of California's water system, a vital component of the state's drinking water system and its fishing and agricultural economies. It is a recreational mecca and home to millions of Californians.


"We hope this order will help stem the crash of the delta's fisheries and its ecosystem," said Kate Poole, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a plaintiff in the case. "Continuing to destroy the delta's ecosystem is not just bad for fish; it's bad for people."


Scientists say that the delta smelt are an indicator of the health of the entire bay delta ecosystem, and are representative of a much larger decline in native delta fisheries, including striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, and others.


The initial lawsuit to protect the delta smelt was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of NRDC, Friends of the River, California Trout, The Bay Institute, and Baykeeper.


An Ecosystem on the Brink of Collapse

The fall midwater trawl conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game counts delta fish species. The latest survey indicates that the collapse of the ecosystem is continuing.


"Judge Wanger's order for more responsible operations of the Delta pumps comes in the nick of time for the delta smelt and the delta ecosystem," said Tina Swanson, senior scientist with The Bay Institute. "Results from this year's survey show that delta smelt numbers, as well as numbers for most of the other delta fishes collected by the survey, have fallen to a new record low. We have very little time left to save this species and its ecosystem."


The recent decline of the delta smelt and other species coincides with huge increases in freshwater exports out of the delta by the state and federally operated water projects. Annual exports increased by 25 percent from 1994-1998 and 2001-2006, draining the delta of more than 1.2 million acre-feet of additional water. Annual exports in 2005 and 2006 were the first and third highest export levels on record. Wintertime exports have increased by 49 percent from 1994-1998 and 2001-2006, and springtime exports have increased by 30 percent. Delta smelt are particularly vulnerable during winter and spring, when pre-spawning and spawning adults move into the delta for reproduction, and larvae and juveniles move downstream to rearing habitat. 

Contacts

Craig Noble, NRDC, (415) 601-8235 (mobile) or (415) 875-6100 (office)
Brian Smith, Earthjustice, (415) 320-9384
Christina Swanson, The Bay Institute, (530) 756-9021

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.