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Shasta River permits said to threaten endangered coho salmon

A lawsuit alleges that the National Marine Fisheries Service illegitimately offered 14 safe harbor permits to conduct activity in the Shasta River.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A group of environmental organizations sued the National Marine Fisheries Service on Wednesday for giving the green light to activities that threaten endangered California salmon in the Shasta River.

The Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of the Shasta River and the Western Environmental Law Center brought the federal complaint in San Francisco, saying the National Marine Fisheries Service issued 14 unlawful permits allowing activity at Shasta River that threatens Southern Oregon and Northern Coast California coho salmon. The salmon are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened with extinction in the river, which flows for 58 miles to its confluence with the Klamath River with a watershed covering 793 square miles.

The lawsuit also takes aim at the service’s safe harbor program, which gives legal immunity to a dam owner and water diverters for harming protected species on private lands.

The plaintiffs claim that the permits, which authorize continued water impoundments, diversions and “routine agricultural activities,” leave river flows altered or diminished, harming coho salmon. They argue the issued permits are unlawful and that agency's biological opinion to evaluate how it decision affects coho salmon was unlawful under the ESA. 

EPIC, a registered nonprofit conservation group in Arcata, seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to remedy harm to coho salmon. Friends of the Shasta River, a registered nonprofit conservation group in Yreka, includes some members who are riparian property owners along the Shasta River or have worked in volunteer or public agencies to preserve and restore the river and native fish runs. 

Sangye Ince-Johannsen, a Western Environmental Law Center attorney, wrote in a statement that the service “gave the irrigators carte blanche to continue the very same practices that so deteriorated coho habitat. These so-called ‘enhancement of survival’ permits lock in an untenable status quo for at least 20 more years — by which time coho may no longer swim up the Shasta.”

EPIC executive director Tom Wheeler added: “Shasta River salmon are at imminent risk of extinction and we need to do everything in our power to stop that from happening. The safe harbor agreements fail to meaningfully improve conditions in the river. We need real solutions and not handouts to billionaire landowners like Red Emmerson.”

The group is suing Alecia Van Atta, assistant regional administrator for the California Coastal Office of NMFS, and Jim Simondet, branch chief of the California Coastal Office of NMFS.

The plaintiffs alleged that on Nov. 17, 2020, Van Atta signed a biological opinion evaluating issuing 14 permits and entering into the safe harbor agreements. That year, NMFS issued an environmental assessment that designates Simondet as the agency’s contact.

The complaint notes that the Shasta River is suffering from the historic drought, which impacts the life and spawning cycles of coho salmon. Historically, in the “upper range” of 6,000 to 15,000 coho spawned in the Shasta River basin. By 1996, approximately 200 adult coho returned to the Shasta River. That number shrunk to 37 in 2020.

The group argues that permits issued by NMFS will bring down river flows because some permittees use push up dams or other ways to alter the Shasta River bed to divert or control water, and diversions contribute to diminished flows and elevated stream temperatures. Irrigation flows from nearby properties also create warming, often returning to the river water at 10 degrees Celsius warmer than the river. 

The plaintiffs therefore argued that the biological opinion the NMFS used to justify its decisions did not use the best available science, and violated the EPA by finding “no significant impact” from the permitted activity. The groups also argued agency's issuing permits to allow activities in the Shasta River basin “will unlawfully jeopardize the continued existence of SONCC coho and destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat.” 

“Agencies first need to recommend and implement science-based flow and temperature standards sufficient to recover coho in the Shasta River," Bill Chesney, retired California Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist and Friends of the Shasta River board member, said. "That needs to come first — not just as an afterthought once the safe harbor participants get immunity for their destructive practices.”

Nick Joslin of Friends of the Shasta River said the agreements are “grounds for giving irrigators 20 years of leeway to ignore activities that will effectively extirpate coho in the Shasta River, in exchange for doing little more than sucking up millions of dollars in public funds for ranch improvements they should be doing themselves.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service declined to comment on the litigation.

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