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Judge Rules Water Projects Imperil Central Valley Salmon and Steelhead

Victory: Fishermen, tribes, and conservationists pleased that court recognizes need for changes to state and federal water project operations to better protect fish, jobs, and local communities
July 18, 2008
Fresno, CA —

A federal judge ruled today that operation of the state and federal water projects in California's Central Valley must be modified to protect threatened and endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead populations from the threat of extinction. Judge Oliver W. Wanger ruled today that "Project operations through March 2009 will appreciably increase jeopardy to the three species," thereby violating the law.  During the court proceedings, the agencies had agreed to some operational changes, such as earlier opening of Red Bluff Diversion Dam and increased water flows on Clear Creek, to better protect salmon and steelhead. The court did not order any additional restrictions on the operations of the water projects in this ruling.


Today's ruling follows a decision by Judge Wanger in April, which found that plans for managing the State Water Project and Central Valley Project (SWP and CVP, respectively) failed to adequately evaluate impacts on three listed salmonid species (winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, and Central valley steelhead), in violation of federal law. The court's decision comes on the heels of the historic collapse of Central Valley salmon populations and the unprecedented closure of this year's commercial and ocean sport fisheries in California.


The underlying case began in 2005 when a coalition of fishermen, conservation, and tribal groups challenged the federal government's biological opinion on the 2004 Operations Criteria and Plan (OCAP) for management of the SWP and CVP. The 2004 OCAP significantly increased water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta over historic levels and instituted other measures, such as relaxing cold water flow requirements and eliminating nearly half of the available salmon spawning habitat in the Sacramento River, that reversed protections credited with saving endangered winter-run Chinook salmon from extinction. These changes corresponded with significant declines in protected salmonid populations since 2004.


"This year's total closure of the commercial salmon fishery -- the first in over 150 years -- created fears that fishing communities were being sacrificed to provide for the insatiable demands of subsidized corporate agribusiness and developers on finite water resources," said Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), a plaintiff in the case. "Judge Wanger's opinion recognizes that we need to restore balance between the instream needs of salmon -- one of our state's finest food crops -- and out-of-stream water uses for crops such as cotton. His decision will help to prevent salmon -- and salmon fishermen -- from going extinct."


In the 1990s, even as California emerged from a record drought, the State was able to meet the needs of major water users while allowing salmon populations to rebound from record low levels. However, before restrictions were imposed by the court in August 2007 to protect the endangered Delta smelt, the state and federal projects were exporting a record amount of water from the Delta under the 2004 OCAP – more than 6 million acre feet a year. The majority of this water goes to agricultural users in the Central Valley, whose contracts allow for reduced water due to drought or other causes. 


"Today's decision conclusively demonstrates that the operations of the state and federal water projects -- not only the pumps, but upstream operations -- must be reformed to protect and sustain salmon, steelhead, and the communities that depend on them," said Kate Poole, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Through conservation, increased efficiency, and other cost-effective solutions, California can better manage its water operations to protect the economic livelihoods of both fishermen and farmers and ensure a healthy and productive ecosystem in the Central Valley."


"The science could not be clearer and the urgency could not be greater," said Dr. Tina Swanson, executive director of The Bay Institute, a plaintiff in the case. "Experts testifying for all parties in the case agreed that salmon and steelhead are at risk of extinction, and that water projects operations planned for the coming year would make things worse.  Judge Wanger's ruling comes in the nick of time and will give us a chance to save these important species."


"Our fight to save salmon in California began 20 years ago," said George Torgun, an attorney for Earthjustice who was part of the legal team in Fresno this summer. "In 1990, the number of winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River had fallen to about 200. A lawsuit forced federal species protection and an expensive retrofitting of Shasta Dam to release cold water when juvenile salmon need it most. Salmon were beginning to recover until the 2004 biological opinion threatened to undo all that progress.  The court has now recognized the severe harm that is occurring to these fish, and we're hopeful that changes will be made to restore this remarkable resource."


The fishing groups, tribal members, and conservationists say that reforming management of the SWP and CVP to better balance environmental and water supply needs is critical to protecting and restoring salmon and other endangered species.


Background

Prior to construction of the state and federal water projects, Chinook (or "king") salmon and steelhead were abundant in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems.  Sacramento River salmon were of great cultural and spiritual importance to the Winnemem Wintu Tribe and remain a major economic contributor to Northern California. As a part of the projects, a necklace of dams was constructed up and down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada on every major river flowing into the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, blocking the upstream migration of salmon and steelhead to and from their historic spawning grounds. Of the 6,000 miles of historic steelhead spawning grounds, today only 300 miles remain. Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River resulted in the extinction of the spring-run Chinook salmon in that river. Shasta and Keswick Dams on the Sacramento River blocked the winter-run Chinook salmon from their historic spawning grounds, forcing them to spawn in a 40-mile stretch of less favorable habitat below those dams.  Every year the pumping of huge volumes of fresh water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta sucks in and grinds up juvenile salmon and steelhead as they attempt to migrate downstream  and though the Delta on their way to the ocean. As a result, Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, and Central Valley steelhead populations have plummeted from historic abundance and all three species are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.


On April 16, 2008, Judge Wanger ruled that the biological opinion prepared for operation of the state and federal water projects violated the Endangered Species Act.  The judge relied on the federal National Marine Fisheries Services' (NMFS) own finding that the current operations of the projects "result in the loss of 42 percent of the juvenile winter-run Chinook population, and proposed project effects are expected to result in an additional 3 to 20 percent loss of the juvenile population."  NMFS also found that the proposed plan, which sought to dramatically increase water exports from the Delta, would kill up to 66 percent of Central Valley steelhead and 57 percent of juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon – likely leading to the extirpation of the spring-run in the Sacramento River and steelhead in the Central Valley.  These findings, the court ruled, are the "diametric opposite" of the federal government's finding that the projects would not jeopardize listed salmonid species. 


The plaintiff coalition that launched the legal challenge includes:  Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources, The Bay Institute, Baykeeper, California Trout, Friends of the River, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, and Sacramento River Preservation Trust.


The decision is available online at: http://www.earthjustice.org/library/legal_docs/salmon-remedies-decision-...

Contacts

George Torgun, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725
Craig Noble, NRDC, (415) 601-8235 (mobile) or Kate Poole at (415) 740-7716
Zeke Grader, PCFFA, (415) 561-5080
Dr. Tina Swanson, The Bay Institute, (530) 756-9021 or (831) 389-4638
John Merz, Sacramento River Preservation Trust, (530) 345-1865

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