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Judge declines to reduce pumping of delta water for salmon

By John Ellis, The Fresno Bee 10/21/08

A federal judge on Tuesday denied a request by environmental groups to reduce delta pumping and take other measures at two major California reservoirs to help the state's endangered salmon population.

In an 11-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger didn't outright reject the requests, but said a hearing would be necessary if environmental groups wanted to pursue the proposals.

Environmentalists aren't sure whether they will seek a hearing because an updated opinion on how to manage the salmon is due in March, said Michael Sherwood, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice. They will discuss the matter today.

Environmentalists had requested that:

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumping in December and January be limited to 7,600 cubic feet per second, or to a ratio based on how much water enters the estuary, based on whichever is more protective of the salmon.

At least 1.9 million acre feet of water be held in Lake Shasta at the end of January, and 2.5 million acre feet at the end of February.

Releases from Folsom Lake be limited beginning Dec. 31 until the new salmon opinion is completed.

The federal government and its water agency allies had opposed the request and had presented new evidence that questioned the science used to justify the requests.

Changes requested by environmentalists would have been only for the short term until the new opinion is issued.

The litigation over winter-run Chinook salmon, spring-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead is part of a long-running battle between the government and environmentalists dealing with the massive Central Valley Project's effect on the fish, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Wanger already has issued a written opinion that the three fish species are at risk of extinction, and the state and federal water project operations are further jeopardizing them.

But in Tuesday's ruling, the judge was reluctant to issue a further ruling without hearing more evidence.

"In light of the potential consequences of further reducing the available CVP project water [yield] to implement such remedies, and in the face of substantial scientific disagreements about the effectiveness and need for such remedies, it is improvident to issue any such relief without further hearings," Wanger wrote.

In addition to the steelhead and two salmon species, the government and environmental groups are sparring over the CVP's effects on the tiny delta smelt. An updated opinion on the smelt is due later this year.

Environmentalists filed suit involving the salmon and smelt because they said the government based project operation effects on the species on flawed data.

Wanger agreed, which is why the opinions are currently being rewritten.


The reporter can be reached at jellis@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6320.
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