SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – Eleven Southern California water districts and say federal plants to set aside more than 7,000 acres of the Santa Ana River for the Santa Ana sucker fish could cost the state $4 billion.
The cities and water departments sued the Secretary of the Interior and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Federal Court. They claims that Fish and Wildlife’s plan to protect a total of 9,300 acres under the Endangered Species Act will also hamper water conservation and efforts to curb flooding in the river.
Lead plaintiff Bear Valley Mutual Water Co. is joined by the Big Bear Water District, the cities of Redlands and Riverside, and water districts in those cities and San Bernardino, Yucaipa and elsewhere.
“The final rule will have devastating impacts upon plaintiffs and others through the river’s watershed who are attempting to utilize local water supplies to meet local water supply needs; who are involved in efforts to control flooding on the Santa Ana River; who are engaged in the construction, operation and maintenance of necessary public infrastructure within the watershed; who discharge highly treated wastewater to the river pursuant to permits issued under the Clean Water Act and state law; and who are attempting to respond to devastating economic conditions within the Inland Empire fostering new development,” the complaint states.
The contested rule will cover land in San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties.
The 96-mile-long Santa Ana River flows – when it flows – from the San Bernardino Mountains, southwest through San Bernardino and Riverside, past the northern edge of the Sana Ana Mountains, past the city of Santa Ana to the Pacific Ocean. It drains a watershed of 2,650 square miles though, like most Southern California rivers, it seldom flows except after storms.
The water agencies say the designation will hurt local and state conservation efforts to protect the sucker fish, and flies in the face of the Service’s “thoroughly considered” 2005 study under the Bush administration, which found that additional protections were “unwarranted” because of the plaintiffs’ own “voluntary and collaborative” conservation plans.
The water agencies say the Fish & Wildlife Service “contractually agreed not to designate as critical habitat [those] lands” covered by local conservation plans, known as the Western County Riverside Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSHCP).
“The final rule departs radically from the Service’s prior conclusions regarding the benefit of designating protected reaches of the Santa Ana River as critical habitat for the sucker and designates land covered by the MSHCP in breach of the Service’s contractual commitment in the MSHCP Implementing Agreement not to do so,” the complaint states.
The water districts also challenge Fish & Wildlife’s estimate, in a draft version of the rule, that its economic impact will be no more than $12 million.
“After plaintiffs challenged the Service’s initial estimate, in its final economic analysis the Service revised its determination of economic impact upward to a figure of $1.09 billion, a nearly one hundred-fold increase over the Service’s initial estimate,” the complaint states.
The water districts say that that too is a gross underestimate, and that the economic burden could exceed $4 billion.
They claim that Uncle Sam’s unwillingness to cooperate with their conservation efforts and its putting the sucker fish before “the human environment” violates the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The Service’s decision to limit the water rights issued to several plaintiffs to just a ‘portion’ of the locally derived water rights granted to them by the State of California will significantly increase the need for these entities to rely upon water exported to Southern California from the [Sacramento-San Joaquin] Delta to meet the existing water requirements of hundreds of thousands of Californians who rely upon them,” the complaint states.
The water districts say this is a “complete failure” by Fish & Wildlife to “perform any objective analysis of the environmental consequences,” and that the agency offered no “rational” explanation for the rule.
“The Service offers no defensible rationale, for example, to explain a complete reversal of its 2005 decision to exclude the Santa Ana River and its tributaries from designation as critical habitat,” the complaint states. “Instead, the Service asserts nothing more than its ‘belief’ that the addition of these areas is essential to the conservation of the Santa Ana sucker.”
The water agencies call the Santa Ana sucker fish a “short-lived member of the sucker family of fishes … named primarily because of the downward orientation and anatomy of their mouth, parts which allow them to suck up small invertebrates, algae, and other organic matter with their fleshy, protrusible lips.”
They want the final rule enjoined as arbitrary, capricious and illegal.
Their lead counsel is Gregory Wilkinson with Best Best & Krieger.