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California Groups Appeal Reduction of Salmon Protections

Weakening of science-based plan threatens salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and Delta
January 19, 2012
San Francisco, CA —

A coalition of commercial and sport salmon fishermen, conservationists, and a native American tribe today appealed to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to fully reinstate a federal water management plan intended to protect threatened Chinook salmon and steelhead throughout California’s Central Valley. The biological opinion, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, functions as a water management plan governing huge water diversions in the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary as well as dams on most major Central Valley rivers. Although a district court upheld most of the biological opinion as scientifically justified, it found that parts of the plan contained some technical problems and sent it back for further review and analysis. The court left the biological opinion in force while federal water managers and wildlife agencies make the necessary fixes.

Chinook salmon. (U.S. FWS)

Large San Joaquin Valley agricultural interests and southern California water users compete for water flowing through the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers that is also needed by endangered salmon, steelhead and other species. These water users filed lawsuits challenging the opinion’s call for reductions in water exports from the Delta during critical times for young migrating salmon, primarily January through June. The fishing groups, conservationists, and a Native American tribe joined together to help defend the biological opinion from these legal challenges.

The biological opinion protects not only highly imperiled and federally protected winter and spring run Chinook salmon, but also commercially valuable fall run salmon that are the backbone of California’s commercial and recreational fisheries. All salmon runs went into a tailspin over the past decade due to excessive siphoning of water from the Delta, primarily for use by corporate farms in the San Joaquin Valley. Water management rules were strengthened in 2009 and the fisheries have been slowly rebuilding. This progress will likely be lost if water users once again weaken water withdrawal rules to their advantage.

“The protective measures under attack by San Joaquin Valley and southern California water interests are the bare minimum we need to keep our salmon fisheries alive,” said Earthjustice attorney Erin Tobin. “This appeal is intended to restore science-based, rational protections needed for California’s native salmon to survive and hopefully one day recover to healthy populations, while at the same time balancing other needs for Delta water.” The public interest law firm Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed today’s appeal on behalf of NRDC, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, Sacramento River Preservation Trust, Friends of the River, California Trout, San Francisco Baykeeper, The Bay Institute, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.

Background:

On June 4, 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a biological opinion including protective measures for Sacramento and San Joaquin River Chinook salmon and steelhead runs. This opinion replaced one issued in 2004 by the Bush administration over the objections of federal fisheries scientists that sent salmon runs into steep decline. Fishermen, environmentalists, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, represented by Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, successfully challenged the Bush era plan in court. Salmon declines that occurred under the all-time high water diversions allowed by the earlier plan forced fishery managers to close North Coast salmon fishing for the first time in the history of the state in 2008 and 2009, an extremely limited season was permitted in 2010. The economic and social impacts of these unprecedented closures to coastal fishing communities have been devastating.

The 2009 biological opinion clearly shows that excessive water diversions in the Delta jeopardize endangered salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon, and even southern resident killer whales, which feed on salmon at sea.

The biological opinion set detailed prescriptions for operating the projects for the next 20 years in a manner that will avoid pushing the fish to extinction or further destroying their habitat, while still providing for other uses of Delta water. Within days after it was released, industrial agriculture and commercial water users filed lawsuits to overturn the plan.

Statements by Coalition Members:

“If we expect to save the salmon and the thousands of salmon industry jobs that depend on them, we need a fair balance of water, which is what we’re asking the appeals court to support,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

“Certain vested agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley are attacking biological science with political science. The federal resource agency responsible for protecting salmon and other at-risk species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has done its job. We look forward to a better day in the Delta soon,” said John Merz, president, Sacramento River Preservation Trust.

Curtis Knight, conservation director of CalTrout said, “The bold and progressive actions of NMFS calling for fish passage and adequate flows under attack now in the appeals court are precisely what is needed to stave off the extinction path of salmon in Central Valley.”

Dr. Jon Rosenfield of The Bay Institute said, “Experts agree that without the minimal protections from excessive water diversions afforded by the ESA biological opinion, California’s treasured Central Valley Chinook salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon are at grave risk of extinction.”

Gary Mulcahy of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe said, “Ask yourself which is worth fighting for—live teeming waterways with healthy fish populations, or dead and dying waterways ruined for profit? Our rivers belong to all of us and we won’t allow anyone to destroy them just to make a buck.”

Contacts

Erin Tobin, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2000

Kate Poole, NRDC, (415) 875-6100

Zeke Grader, PCFFA, (415) 561-5080 x224

Gary Bobker, The Bay Institute, (415) 272-6616

Gary Mulcahy, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, (916) 991-8493

John Merz, Sacramento River Preservation Trust, (530) 345-1865

Curtis Knight, California Trout, (530) 859-1872

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.