A federal judge has found that the way the Bureau of Reclamation is operating the Central Arizona Project is illegal and will schedule a hearing to determine precisely what to do about it. The Honorable David Ezra found on September 22 that the operators of the project are violating the Endangered Species Act by jeopardizing the survival and recovery of several protected species of fish in the headwaters of the Gila River.
The Central Arizona Project is a massive system of ditches and canals that transport Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to Phoenix, Tucson, and irrigators in central Arizona. Along with the water, it provides a route for nonnative fish and other organisms to migrate from the heavily “infected” Colorado River to native fish habitat in the Gila Basin.
In 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a temporary permit which allowed some take (killing) of the razorback sucker, spikedace, loach minnow, and Gila topminnow fish species, with the understanding that the Bureau of Reclamation should mitigate take by installing fish barriers and other elements. Since that time, the bureau has repeatedly missed deadlines for constructing the barriers and the service has responded by extending the deadlines.
In 1997, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit to force the agencies to take steps to protect the endangered fish, and this September, Judge Ezra agreed that the agencies are breaking the law. The next step is to find a just remedy that will bring the project into compliance with the law.
“This is a great decision for native fish in a region of the country where native fish struggle to survive. The court is finally ordering the Bureau of Reclamation to do more to protect native fish,” said Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity.
“We argued that the repeated extensions of the deadlines were arbitrary and not based on sound science. The court agreed. Now the Bureau of Reclamation must comply with Endangered Species Act and fix the mess it has created,” said Jay Tutchton, attorney with Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic at Denver University, who represented the Center in the suit.
“Congress has provided Bureau of Reclamation with some money to implement the fish remediation measures as directed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now it’s time to get started,” said Heather Weiner, Senior Legislative Council for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.