In a stark reversal of its earlier position, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today declared that water operations in California must be altered to protect California’s Bay-Delta ecosystem from collapse. Conservation and fishing groups praised the new decision, which will help restore the ecological health of the West Coast’s largest estuary and the fisheries that depend upon clean water.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s latest decision comes in a biological opinion issued on the delta smelt, a fish native to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that is listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Scientists say that the smelt are an indicator of the health of the entire Bay-Delta ecosystem, and representative of a much larger decline in local fisheries, including striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, and Chinook salmon.
Among the findings in the new Biological Opinion on the Operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project:
- The delta smelt are at their lowest level of abundance since 1967;
- Continued operation of the projects’ pumps, dams, and canals will likely lead to the extinction of the smelt;
- To survive and recover, smelt need more cold, clean water and improved habitat conditions.
Read the full biological opinion (8MB PDF)
Statement by Mike Sherwood of Earthjustice:
“We are delighted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finally recognized that we have reached the limits of how much water can be pumped out of the Delta without causing the complete collapse of the Delta ecosystem and all the creatures that depend upon a healthy Delta for their survival — including people. The FWS found that excessive pumping of water out of the Delta over the last several years is driving the Delta smelt — an indicator of the overall health of the Delta — to extinction. Excessive pumping and other operations of the State and Federal Water Projects has also driven California salmon and steelhead to the brink of extinction, resulting in the collapse of the multi-million dollar salmon fishery in northern California.
“Contrary to statements by the California Department of Water Resources and the commercial water industry, this will not cause millions of California citizens to go thirsty. Instead, limiting pumping of water out of the Delta to sustainable amounts is good for the smelt, good for salmon and the northern California fishing and native American communities that depend upon the salmon, and good for people who depend upon clean water and a healthy Delta. The amount of water “lost” by this biological opinion can easily be made up by simple conservation measures such as more efficient irrigation systems in farms and by switching from inappropriate and water-intensive crops such as cotton to crops more appropriate for an arid climate.”
The End of a Long Legal Battle
In 2005, U.S. Fish and Wildlife issued a biological opinion on the Long-Term Operational Criteria and Plan (OCAP) for coordination of the Central Valley Project and State Water Projects that found no harm in increasing pumping from the Delta. Water project operators used the wildlife’s agency’s opinion as justification to increase delta exports and to renew 25- and 40-year contracts to irrigation districts and urban water agencies.
In 2006, conservation groups sued in federal court, arguing that the 2005 Biological Opinion was not supported by science. Attorneys from Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council represented California Trout, San Francisco Baykeeper, Friends of the River, and the Bay Institute in the 2006 court challenge.
In May 2007, federal court judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno vacated the 2005 BiOp finding that increased water exports violated the federal Endangered Species Act. This began the process of writing a new permit that was finalized today.
In his ruling, Judge Oliver W. Wanger of the U.S. District Court in Fresno wrote, “The Delta smelt is undisputedly in jeopardy as to its survival and recovery. The 2005 BiOp’s ‘no jeopardy’ finding is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”