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Green Coalition Intervenes in Salmon Water Tug of War

Environmental News Service

FRESNO, California, August 24, 2009 (ENS) Another water rights conflict between humans and fish is coming to a head in drought-stricken California.

A coalition of fishing and environmental groups and tribes filed papers in federal court today in Fresno seeking to secure the water that California's native salmon and other endangered fish species need for survival..

The groups oppose legal efforts by 30 public water agencies and large agricultural interests who argue that the National Marine Fisheries Service should have prepared an environmental impact statement before adopting a salmon recovery plan that will divert hundreds of thousands of acre feet of California's freshwater supplies into the ocean to provide adequate water flows for salmon.

On June 4, 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service released an 800-page plan to rebuild Sacramento River salmon runs. Formally called a biological opinion, this plan replaced one issued in 2004 by the Bush administration, over the objections of federal fisheries scientists, that sent salmon runs into steep decline.

Spring-run Chinook salmon in California's Central Valley (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Under the Bush plan, salmon losses were so severe that fishery managers closed California's North Coast salmon fishing for the first time in the history of the state.

The new salmon restoration plan states that excessive water diversions by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project and the State Water Project operations jeopardize endangered salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon as well as southern resident killer whales which feed on salmon at sea.

"The National Marine Fisheries Service issued a strong, science-based roadmap of actions to protect and recover California salmon and steelhead," said attorney Mike Sherwood of Earthjustice. "It's been said before and bears repeating - fish need water. We won't idly stand by as industrial agriculture and commercial water interests pretend that simple fact isn't true."

"If we expect to save the salmon and other fish of the Delta, indeed, the Delta itself, we must adhere to the best science and that is the biological opinion," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Issued in June, the 2009 Salmon Biological Opinion sets detailed prescriptions for operating the water projects for the next 20 years in a manner that the coalition says will avoid pushing the fish to extinction or further destroying their habitat..

Eleven days after the 2009 Biological Opinion was released, industrial agriculture and commercial water users filed lawsuits to overturn it.

Today's intervention by the coalition is in the case filed by San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the Westlands Water District that seeks to invalidate the 2009 Salmon Biological Opinion and enjoin the pumping restrictions and other protective measures it requires.

Citing a California Department of Water Resources estimate, the plaintiff water authorities say the measures required by the new biological opinion could take as much as 500,000 acre feet of water out of the water system that would otherwise serve human needs.

Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, said, "Denying this much water to California is going to do obvious, serious and enduring damage to habitat, to wetlands, and to other endangered species. It will reduce water quality and drive up the costs of water treatment for millions of people. It will reduce the opportunities for recycling, conjunctive use, and water transfers, which are all vitally important to the state's efforts to conserve water and improve efficiency."

"And," he said, "it will put tens of thousands of people out of work, which affects public health and safety in myriad ways."

The coalition argues that the measures required by the new biological opinion "are necessary to avoid jeopardy to the existence and recovery of the species and avoid adverse modification of their critical habitat."

If anything, the coalition says, the protective measures must be strengthened to ensure the recovery of the five species so that they no longer need Endangered Species Act protection.

"What is it with these people?" asked Gary Mulcahy of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. "Can they not see that what they have done in the past is killing the Delta, the salmon, cultures, the environment, and with it people. All for what? Greed. Yet, they want to go back to what they were doing before the new biological opinion."

"You cannot continue to destroy the things around you under the guise of economic growth, and expect the people to continue to believe in that lie forever," said Mulcahy. "It is time to stop this madness. It is time to defeat these greedy and untruthful interests.. It is time for Californians to just say NO to the big agribusiness and water agency grab for your water. We intervene to protect the salmon, the water, our culture, and the people."

But the water districts say Central Valley communities and agricultural operations are already going without the water they need because of a 2007 court ruling protecting a tiny endangered silvery fish called Delta smelt.

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              Page Updated: Thursday August 27, 2009 03:29 AM  Pacific

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