Over 400 Cal Water Agencies Call Fish Protection Unreasonable

(July 26) Nine San Bernardino County water agencies have obtained the backing of more than 400 of their counterparts from around the state in propounding an argument that the federal government’s expansion of the designated critical habitat of the Santa Ana Sucker Fish is unreasonable.
The Bear Valley Mutual Water Co. in Redlands; Big Bear Municipal Water District; the city of Redlands; the city of San Bernardino Municipal Water Department; the East Valley Water District in Highland; the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District; the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District; the West Valley Water District in Rialto and the Yucaipa Valley Water District last year joined with three of their equivalents in Riverside County,  the city of Riverside; the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District; and the Western Municipal Water District in Riverside; in making a case with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna’s approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan for protective measures for the Santa Ana Sucker,  a fish that dwells in the Santa Ana River and which federal  biologists say is threatened with possible extinction. The Santa Ana River, which has its headwaters at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains and then winds 96 miles through San Bernardino County into Riverside County and through Orange County to the Pacific Ocean, is the highest quality habitat available to the Santa Ana sucker.
In October 2012, Selna upheld Fish & Wildlife’s December 2010 plan to double to more than  9,000 acres the land along the Santa Ana River in San Bernardino and Riverside counties that was designated as critical Sucker habitat. The agencies sued the service in 2011 over the approval of that plan, which calls for a limit on the amount of water that water districts can draw from the river, a limitation intended to protect the typically six-inch long fish inhabiting the river.
The nine San Bernardino County agencies and three Riverside County agencies are  represented by attorney Greg Wilkinson, who maintains that the Fish & Wildlife strategy of doubling what is deemed critical habitat for the fish will significantly complicate the water agencies’ functions of drawing water for domestic consumption and agriculture, groundwater recharge and flood control measures along the river. The limitations are most acute, according to Wilkinson, at the Seven Oaks Dam, some four miles northeast of Redlands and east of Highland.
The Fish & Wildlife agency insists sufficient water must be released from Seven Oaks Dam and remain in the river to maintain a flow to stir up the riverbed and allow the fish to reproduce and sustain itself.
But purveyors of water in both counties maintain they have already made herculean efforts to safeguard the fish and that the sucker’s numbers are not threatened at present. They contend they are keeping faith with a conservation plan previously certified by Fish & Wildlife as sufficient, which reserved 400,000 acres for sucker habitat and protects 145 other species. Wilkinson said that Fish & Wildlife officials impermissibly reneged on the acceptance of that approach and the agencies are being squeezed, on one hand, by federal officials, and on the other by the California Fish and Game Commission, which has listed the Delta smelt as endangered, leading to limitations on the importation of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California.
Wilkinson drummed up the support of 440 water agencies in the state, banned together under the aegis of the Association of California Water Agencies, which filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals on June 3, highlighting the water agencies’ collective misgivings with regard to the doubling of the critical habitat area for the Santa Ana Sucker, which dines in large measure on algae. Expansion of the habitat violates provisions within the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 [NEPA], the water agencies contend, in that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan relating to the Sucker approved by Judge Selna dispensed with the cooperation of the various agencies involved. NEPA requires that federal, state and local agencies cooperate on environmental plans.
Wilkinson charged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with having purposefully avoided consultations with the agencies impacted by the plan while the plan was being drafted.
Wilkinson wants the matter heard by the entire Ninth Circuit Court Bench rather than just a three member panel thereof, as is normally the case. He intends to argue that the steps already taken to protect the Santa Ana Sucker have been extraordinary and that the additional measures the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is insisting upon  will have other equally, or even more, onerous consequences to the environment by depriving outlying areas of the watershed of water and/or entailing an expensive and potentially wasteful and damaging effort to import water from elsewhere, involving threats to endangered species at other locations  and “the entirety of the human environment, not just the protection of listed species.”
According to Wilkinson, the protective measures the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is calling for would in time result in the water agencies sustaining more than $4 billion in additional costs due to the individual and collective needs to make other arrangements to serve their customers, including but not limited to sinking wells and obtaining water elsewhere, such as from Northern California and the Colorado River.
While the Santa Ana River is the prime habitat and breeding grounds for the Sucker,  a genetically identical example of the fish is present in the Angeles National Forest’s San Gabriel River, in portions of its west, north and east forks, all of which are located in Los Angeles County.
Conservationists and environmentalists  believe the Fish & Wildlife Service’s designation is critical to the sucker fish’s prospects for long term survival in that the fish needs gravel-size rocks upon which to lay its eggs and the protection measures in the plan include areas that meet that criteria in both the perennial part of the Santa Ana River and the Santa Ana River Wash.

Leave a Reply