Politics & Government

Federal court hears face-off over fish

Environmentalists on Wednesday again clashed with the federal government and state water contractors over how native fish species fit into the state's two major water projects.

This time, it was about salmon and steelhead instead of delta smelt.

U.S. District Court Judge Oliver W. Wanger made no decision following a daylong federal court hearing, but agricultural groups and water contractors are waiting nervously.

They say another ruling in favor of fish could mean further cuts in water deliveries to west side Valley farmers and urban water consumers from the Bay Area to Southern California.

In August, Wanger ordered cuts in pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect the endangered delta smelt. The state Department of Water Resources said that decision could cause 35% less water to be delivered from the delta in an average year.

The delta smelt lawsuit shared many of the same legal issues -- as well as attorneys -- with Wednesday's lawsuit hearing.

That lawsuit -- filed in August 2005 -- involves several species of salmon and steelhead. It was filed by environmental and fishing organizations.

At issue is a key National Marine Fisheries Service opinion on managing threatened steelhead and Coho and Chinook salmon during fall and spring runs on Northern California waterways.

Earlier this year, Wanger threw out a similar U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opinion on managing the delta smelt.

But attorneys for agriculture interests and water contractors say the salmon and steelhead are not as embattled as the smelt.

"The status of these fish is they're nowhere near extinction the way the delta smelt are," said Christopher Buckley Jr., an attorney representing the California Farm Bureau Federation.

But a similar strategy has surfaced in both lawsuits, with attorneys arguing Wednesday that the state's two water projects are not the sole cause of the decline in salmon and steelhead populations. In the smelt case, attorneys had argued that giant delta pumps were not solely responsible for killing off smelt.

Gregory Wilkinson, an attorney representing the State Water Contractors -- an organization representing more than two dozen agencies that buy water from the state -- said ocean fishing also takes a toll on steelhead and salmon.

He noted a study that showed large takes of spring run Chinook salmon in the ocean by commercial fishing.

"To pretend that doesn't exist," he said, "is ridiculous."

But Michael Sherwood, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, outlined what he said has been a long decline in salmon and steelhead populations that can be traced to the construction on dams on California rivers such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin.

The two rivers -- as well as many of their tributaries -- used to be "abundant with salmon," he said. But after dams blocked access to their historic spawning grounds, the resulting population declines have put them "on the brink of extinction."

Sherwood said part of the National Marine Fisheries Service opinion established a site on the Sacramento River where the water temperature would be 56 degrees Fahrenheit. That water temperature is conducive to salmon spawning.

But, Sherwood said, the location where the temperature is measured was later moved closer to Shasta Dam.

Doing so shortened the length of river that would have to maintain temperatures low enough to support spawning. As a result, less cold water was needed from Lake Shasta, which meant more water could be delivered to water contractors, he said.

In addition, Sherwood argued that a 1993 National Marine Fisheries Service opinion on the salmon and steelhead required that 1.9 million acre-feet be held in Lake Shasta, but the requirement was changed to a "target" that he said was unenforceable when the opinion was updated in 2004.

Federal government attorney Bridget Kennedy McNeil said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation continues to aim for the 1.9 million acre-feet target in Lake Shasta. As for the temperature location, moving the site closer to the dam allows the water projects to better meet cold-water requirements for all fish species, she said.

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