SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The Environmental Protection Agency failed to review water quality standard changes for California’s Bay-Delta estuary that could harm at least half a dozen imperiled fish species, environmental groups claim in court.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, Bay.org and Defenders of Wildlife sued the EPA in Federal Court on Friday, claiming the agency ignored its mandate to review changes that already have harmed at least two endangered fish species.
In the past two years, the State Water Resources Control Board has adopted three new sets of water quality standards for the Bay-Delta estuary, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers meet before entering San Francisco Bay.
The EPA did not review any of these revisions, despite its mandate to do so under the Clean Water Act, the plaintiffs say.
The most recent changes, adopted April 19 and effective immediately, allow increased exports of water, reduced river flow, higher salinity and weaker restrictions on when gates leading to pumping facilities can open.
The groups say these changes jeopardize the survival of several species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, including the Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, and the southern distinct population segment of North American green sturgeon.
Several fish species that live in the freshwater portion of the Delta have seen record-low or near-record-low levels in recent years, including the Delta smelt, longfin smelt, juvenile striped bass, American shad and threadfin shad.
The state water board creates and adopts standards, but the dams and systems that control how water moves in and out of the Delta are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Water Resources.
In 2014 and 2015, the Reclamation Bureau mismanaged the release of cold water from the Shasta Reservoir, causing a fatal increase in temperature that killed 95 percent of winter-run Chinook salmon eggs in 2014 and 98 percent of eggs in 2015, according to the complaint.
In 2014 and 2015, a survey of fish life found the Delta smelt had declined to single digits for the first time in 48 years. The handful of smelt that scientists did catch were in poor condition, “indicating diminished resilience in the depleted population.”
“In spite of the disastrous impacts to fish species in 2014 and 2015, SWRCB has again approved revisions to the Bay-Delta water quality standards in 2016,” the 31-page complaint states.
The state water board acknowledged this year that “the status quo of the past two years is not sustainable for fish and wildlife,” according to a state water board order cited in the complaint.
The environmental groups, say the EPA violates the Clean Water Act by failing to perform its oversight duty. They seek declaratory judgment and an injunction nullifying the state water’s board’s water quality standard changes until they are fully reviewed and approved by the EPA.
“The Region is coordinating with headquarters and reviewing the complaint, but we do not have a statement at this time,” said EPA Region 9 spokesman Soledad Calvino.
Last year, at least eight lawsuits were filed alleging harm to Delta smelt, including one to stop construction of a dam across a channel of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
In 2014, the Ninth Circuit upheld a ruling that found distribution of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary waters threatens the endangered Delta smelt.
The environmentalists’ lead counsel is Katherine Poole with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.
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