Federal Judge’s Order Protects California Trout

Citing the “extremely precarious situation” for steelhead trout in the California Delta, the judge halted a water grab from the Trump administration and downstream farmers.

Male and female steelhead trout. (NOAA)

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — To protect the spring migration of threatened California trout species, a federal judge Monday halted the Trump administration’s bid to supply farmers with extra water from the West Coast’s largest estuary.

Citing the “extremely precarious situation” of juvenile steelhead trout in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd ordered the federal government to reinstate stricter pumping limits for May, established under the Obama administration. Drozd poked at inconsistencies in the feds’ own environmental review and said it was not clear whether the new rules were strong enough to protect a species devastated by decades of increased demand for Delta water. 

“Given that it appears to be undisputed that California Central Valley steelhead are declining, the court has serious concerns as to whether this reasoning satisfies the National Marine Fisheries Service’s obligations under the Endangered Species Act to evaluate whether the [rules] would jeopardize the species or destroy or adversely modify crucial habitat,” Drozd wrote late Monday

Drozd is presiding over a framework governing how much water the Bureau of Reclamation can take from the Delta for its Central Valley Project during specific periods of the year. The federal government recently adopted a new biological opinion and operating procedures for the project, one of the largest water conveyance operations in the county, consisting of 20 dams and more than 500 miles of canals.

The Trump administration claims the rules are a critical update that will inject more flexibility into a system formulated in 1933 and allow it to deliver additional water to Central Valley farmers without crashing salmon and trout populations.

California officials, however, say the rules were preordained to help President Trump back up a campaign promise to cut environmental regulations and “open up the water” to California farms at the expense of wildlife. Both the state and environmentalists such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are fighting the rules before Drozd in the Eastern District of California. 

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra cast Monday’s ruling as “critical” but acknowledged the fight over Trump’s water grab was far from over.

“We applaud the court for hitting pause on the Trump administration’s reckless attempt to expand water export operations at the expense of California’s wildlife and habitats,” Becerra said in a statement. “We have the facts, science and the law behind us, and we look forward to making our case in court.”

Drozd’s decision to grant the plaintiffs’ preliminary relief forces the feds to return to the 2009 status quo within 24 hours. The order comes four days after a marathon session conducted via Zoom and telephonic appearances where Drozd noted the complex nature of the cases involving the major players in California’s multifaceted water world.

“Based upon the amount of briefing and evidence and information that’s already been presented to the court, I have to say that I feel you have all overestimated my abilities,” Drozd said on May 7.

In a 36-page order, Drozd said that while the proposed excess pumping may not cause immediate “extinction-level harms,” the long-term impacts could nonetheless be severe on the anadromous fish. He scoffed at the feds’ attempt to justify the new rules by comparing the accepted number of fish killed by Delta pumps to the Obama-era rules, which did little if anything to boost struggling populations.

“The court has questioned above how a ‘similar’ amount of loss could be justified with respect to a species that that the fisheries service concedes has already been in decline,” Drozd wrote. “How can these loss limits effectively function to avoid irreparable harm to a declining steelhead population if those loss limits are ‘expected to’ do no more than ‘limit loss to levels similar to what has been observed over the past 10 years?”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, applauded the temporary relief for California’s “vanishing” salmon and trout runs.

“While this course of litigation is on the right track, it is still in process,” Barrigan-Parrilla said in a statement. “Despite claims by industrial agricultural growers and the Trump administration that environmental flows are ‘wasted water,’ in federal court, science, facts, and rational truth still matter for the health of the San Francisco Bay-Delta.”

Drozd, appointed by President Obama in 2015, has now given each side a temporary victory in the budding water war: In April he denied the environmentalists’ request for emergency relief and allowed the feds to exceed the 2009 pumping limits for a brief stretch that month.

Displeased with the feds’ water rules, California is forging ahead with new operational rules for its own Delta-fed State Water Project. The state claims its pumping rules are stricter and will protect salmon by ensuring enough water is in the river systems during critical spawning times, but have nonetheless drawn the ire of environmentalists and water suppliers.

Meanwhile, in a separate federal lawsuit filed late Monday, a collection of conservationists and Delta water agencies sued the Trump administration over a plan that would allow farmers north of the Delta to sell excess water downstream to parched Central Valley growers. Critics say the water transfer program could degrade Delta water quality and strain groundwater supplies.

The north-south water deals are common during dry years and are a longstanding piece of California’s water chessboard. In 2018 a federal judge forced the Bureau of Reclamation back to the drawing board, but environmentalists insist the latest version is still flawed.

“The bureau and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority have failed to provide an accurate description of the project, made nakedly unenforceable promises about operation of the project, failed to account for a plethora of new information and changed circumstances that have come about since environmental review for the ten-year transfer program was evaluated, and doubled down prior analytical deficiencies,” claims the lawsuit filed by lead plaintiff Aqualliance. 

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