Feds Dodge Claims of Violating California Water Law

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Friday successfully dodged claims its management of a California dam violates state law and threatens the survival of endangered steelhead trout, but the legal battle is far from over.

Male and female steelhead trout. (NOAA)

U.S. District Judge Edward Chen rejected a move by conservationists to add the United States as a “necessary party” to a state court action involving disputed rights to water from the Twitchell Dam and Reservoir in San Luis Obispo County.

San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper and Los Padres ForestWatch challenged a 2005 stipulated judgment in a state court case as inconsistent with California Fish and Game Code Section 5937, which requires dam owners release enough water “to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.”

According to the plaintiffs, the Santa Maria River once had the second largest run of Southern California steelhead in Santa Barbara County. That was before the Twitchell Dam, completed in 1958, started limiting flows on the river, preventing juvenile steelhead from reaching the Pacific Ocean and ocean-dwelling steelhead from reaching the Sisquoc River spawning habitat.

In court Friday, Coastkeeper attorney Daniel Cooper, of Lawyers for Clean Water in San Francisco, argued that diversion flows to help save endangered steelhead were never considered when the state court approved a plan to settle disputed water rights in 2005 and 2008. Because the United States owns water rights that were adjudicated in that case, Cooper argued it is a “necessary party” in the state court action and subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

But Chen disagreed, noting the 2005 and 2008 judgments resolved a dispute over rights to groundwater controlled by the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District, not surface water controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“I just don’t see the nexus,” Chen said.

Cooper said he was concerned this ruling could set a bad precedent and allow federal agencies that own dams while contracting with regional water districts to “wash their hands of California water law.”

According to Cooper, California law provides greater relief than the Endangered Species Act because it requires the fish population be maintained based on “historical abundance” rather than the lower standard of preventing extinction.

Nevertheless, Cooper signaled after the hearing Friday that will file a new federal lawsuit claiming violations of the Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, he vowed to continue fighting in state court to make other parties with rights to water from the Twitchell Reservoir relinquish some of those resources to help save endangered steelhead.

The plaintiffs estimate a plan to divert water for the endangered fish would require about 4% of the approximately 105,000 acre-feet of water stored in the Twitchell Reservoir.

The 241-foot Twitchell Dam in southern San Luis Obispo County is part of the Santa Maria project authorized by Congress in 1954 for flood control and water conservation. The Twitchell Reservoir has a capacity of 224,300 acre-feet and stores surface water from the Cuyama River under a license from the state of California.

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