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Calif. judge gives federal government three more months on new rules to protect endangered fish

By John Ellis, McClatchy Newspapers 2/23/09

A judge in California on Monday gave the federal government three more months to finish a new set of rules to protect endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, spring-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead.

Environmentalists didn't object to the extension, though they did express concern that three more months would pass with the fish species - who they said are struggling for survival - being managed under a plan that U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger has already said is flawed.

They also reserved the right to change their minds and seek additional court action if necessary.

Increasingly pessimistic farmers and ranchers on California's central San Joaquin Valley's west side figured Monday's delay means another three months of waiting for another hit to their dwindling water supplies.

"It almost doesn't make a difference to us one way or the other," said Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, which is the second-largest consumer of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Wanger agreed to the request by the federal government during a hearing - in which all the attorneys participated by telephone - because both sides said more time is needed to get the management plan right.

The winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon spawn mainly on the Sacramento River and some of its Northern California tributaries. That river system is key to the federal Central Valley Project.

Michael Sherwood, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, said the situation is changing daily, but for the salmon that spawn on the Sacramento River, "it's going to be a bad year."

That Sacramento River water flows into the delta, where some of its water is then pumped out and sent south to users such as Westlands, as well as commercial and residential users in the Bay Area and Southern California.

Last summer, Wanger ruled that the three fish species were at risk of extinction and that the state and federal water project operations were further jeopardizing their survival. He found that the rules managing the fish violated the federal Endangered Species Act because they didn't adequately protect the species.

Since then, the National Marine Fisheries Service has been reworking those rules.

Already, a similar rewrite of fish-management rules by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the endangered delta smelt has reduced water deliveries to Westlands and other users. The state's drought has also contributed to the region's water woes.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said west Valley farmers will receive no federal water this season.

Others are feeling the pinch, too: Contra Costa Water District's 500,000 customers likely will face mandatory water rationing in the coming months, and cities from the Bay Area to San Diego are expected to impose mandatory water rationing soon.

The upcoming rewrite of the salmon rules is widely expected to make things even harder on those who depend on the state's intricately woven water system.

The rewritten rules covering the salmon and steelhead species will likely make it even harder to get any federal water at all, said Woolf of Westlands.

"Zero is zero," she said. "They can't take any more away."

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