Greens Fight San Bernardino’s Plan for River Water

Southern California’s Santa Ana River, looking toward Riverside. (Photo: Scottthezombie at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (CN) — Two environmental groups challenged San Bernardino’s plan to drastically cut water releases to the Santa Ana River, claiming it will hurt endangered wildlife species and their habitats.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society sued San Bernardino and its Municipal Water Department in Superior Court Thursday, asking that construction of the proposed Clean Water Factory project be postponed until the city’s environmental studies comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

“The ill-conceived project will further imperil the Santa Ana sucker in its namesake river, where it only inhabits a 3-5 miles stretch of the river that is dependent on water from water treatment plants for surface flows in the dry times of the year,” Ileene Anderson, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Courthouse News in an email.

“Decreasing the amount of water that flows into the Santa Ana River will only decrease the already threatened fish’s population, ultimately pushing closer towards extinction.”

The project will divert up to 22 million gallons of water a day into the rapid infiltration and extraction facility and from there to spreading basins, with the potential to cut flow rates of the Santa Ana River in half, according to the environmentalists’ 28-page complaint.

Though the groups submitted ample evidence that the project will harm threatened and endangered species, including the Santa Ana sucker and San Bernardino kangaroo rat, they say the project’s environmental impact report does not adequately discuss these impacts or identify enough mitigation measures to reduce them.

Flowing 96 miles from its headwaters in the San Bernardino Mountains to drain in a watershed that spans four counties, the Santa Ana is the largest river entirely within Southern California.

Its drainage basin boasts a variety of diverse habitats, ranging from inland mountains in the north and east to the semi-desert basin and flat coastal plains in the west. Hundreds of plant and animal species call the basin home, including several species of oak and pine, migratory birds, black bears, rainbow trout and salmon. The project area includes around 39 special-status plant species, and 35 special-status wildlife species.

One of the most endangered species in the area is the Santa Ana sucker, a small, olive-gray fish that feeds on algae, small invertebrates and organic detritus. They require constant stream flows to keep temperatures habitable, deep water for food and shelter, flowing streams for spawning, and sandy substrates to support larvae and fry. Most Santa Ana suckers live around two years.

Though federally listed as endangered in 2000, the Santa Ana sucker’s numbers continue to decline. Once widespread, the species can be found only in a 2.6-to-6-mile stretch of its namesake river.

Water levels drop whenever the rapid infiltration and extraction facility shuts down for maintenance. Though volunteers with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife try to rescue stranded suckers and keep them in buckets until water levels rise, many suckers die during these events. Given the project’s goal of further reducing water flows, the project will decrease the sucker’s chances of reproducing and surviving, the groups say.

San Bernardino kangaroo rats are also in danger of losing their alluvial fan, active floodplains, and upland area habitats. These small, dusky brown rats hop on their large hind feet instead of scurrying on the ground. Their long tails help them balance and the pouches in their cheeks let them store food while foraging. Once plentiful, its populations are steadily decreasing due to urbanization, stream alterations and mining. It is both federally endangered and a California species of special concern.

The San Bernardino Municipal Water Department issued the draft environmental impact report for the project on April 22, 2016. Though the groups criticized the report’s deficiencies, including its failure to identify impacts to endangered species, mitigation measures to reduce these impacts, and lack of biological resource surveys to establish baseline conditions, few to none of their points were addressed in the final report, according to the complaint.

Nor does the report disclose or analyze impacts to groundwater and water resources, water and air quality, or provide an adequate selection and discussion of project alternatives, the groups say.

Nevertheless, the department voted to approve the project and certify the final report on March 7.

The San Bernardino City Attorney’s Office did not return emails or calls seeking comment Friday.

The groups ask the court to set aside the defendants’ approval of the project, vacate certification of the environmental impact report, and issue an injunction preventing any work from being done on the project until the defendants can prepare a new study that complies with CEQA.

They are represented by John Buse, house counsel with Center for Biological Diversity.

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