Late last Friday evening, as is tradition with bad news, the National Marine Fisheries Service (also known as NOAA Fisheries) released a finding that would allow more Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to be exported from Northern California to Southern California. The finding, known as a biological opinion, determined that the proposed water transfers would not jeopardize the survival of five fish species including the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, the threatened spring-run Chinook salmon and the threatened Central Valley steelhead. Today, Earthjustice charged that the opinion is politically motivated. The opinion would allow the federal Bureau of Reclamation and state Department of Water Resources to send more Delta water to Southern California urban and agricultural water districts despite the impacts on protected native California fish species.
“This is not sound science, this is political science, and an invitation for litigation from concerned citizens,” said Trent Orr an attorney with Earthjustice. “If it turns out the science was manipulated to favor water exporters and at the expense of California’s endangered fish, NMFS should expect a legal tornado from sport fishers, the outdoor community, and conservation groups who refuse to turn back the clock on species recovery.”
Winter Run Chinook salmon – An Endangered Species Act Success Story
Ten years ago, the Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon was nearly extinct, a victim of water diversions, impassable dams, pollution, and drought. A species that used to return in the tens of thousands (118,000 in 1969) had sent only 186 adults upriver to spawn in 1994. The government did the counting but little else.
The American Fisheries Society, represented by Mike Sherwood of Earthjustice, went to court, and the species was granted an emergency listing under the Endangered Species Act. A dramatic rebound is underway, a major success story for the citizen enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and good news for all species that live in the river, including some with considerable economic importance.
An early draft of the report had found that this new plan would jeopardize the fish, but then an order came down to change the results. On October 2, a Sacramento Bee article entitled “Rewrite softens report on risks to fish” found that that biologists from the Sacramento office of NMFS were concerned the water transfers might have disastrous impacts on the species. Their findings were overruled by higher ups in the Bush administration that ordered the report be revised. The Bee quoted a biologist in the Sacramento office as feeling “totally demoralized.”
Previous to release of the final report, rumors of tampering with the science had caused Democratic U.S. senators to call for an investigation to determine whether the science was cooked to deliver the results sought by big agricultural interests and developers. Additionally, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) and 18 other members of Congress have asked the inspectors general of the Interior and Commerce departments to investigate whether federal political appointees had played a role in overriding the initial findings.