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Ninth Circuit sides with environmentalists in fight over Central California dam

In a split decision the appellate panel ruled that the government agencies aren't precluded from using water from the dam to support the endangered trout population.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with two environmental organizations that a Central California dam can legally be managed to preserve an endangered trout species in addition to its primary purpose to conserve water for residents, farms and industries in the surrounding area.

In a split decision Friday, the appellate panel overturned a judge's ruling last year that the government agencies in charge of the Twitchell Dam in the Santa Maria River watershed had no discretion to release water to flow into the ocean for the benefit of the Southern California steelhead trout.

The 1954 law that authorized the construction of the dam expressly authorized it to be operated for other purposes beyond its principal purpose to recharge the Santa Maria River Valley’s groundwater aquifer and to eliminate the threat of extensive flood damage, Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote for the majority.

"There is no clear Congressional intent to preclude the dam from being operated to avoid take of Southern California Steelhead," Thomas said. "If Congress had intended to limit the dam’s operations solely to the enumerated purposes, it knew how to do so and would have used limiting rather than broad language."

The decision didn't address how the government agencies should exercise their authority to release water for the preservation of the endangered trout.

Representatives of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District, the agencies in charge of the dam and the defendants in the underlying lawsuit, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling.

The dam is located on the Cuyama River, about 66 miles downstream from its headwaters in the Chumash Wilderness Area. The dam sits about six miles upstream from where the Cuyama joins the Sisquoc River and becomes the Santa Maria River. 

Historically, the Santa Maria River system provided a migratory habitat for the endangered trout species. Although the lower Santa Maria River remains dry most of the time, during sporadic periods of ample rain, freshwater from the Cuyama and Sisquoc Rivers used to run directly through the Santa Maria into the ocean. During these periods, the fish were able to migrate to and from the ocean to mature and replenish their population.

The Twitchell Dam, constructed in 1958, has contributed to the endangerment of the Southern California steelhead populations because it is operated to retain water during high precipitation periods and then to release it during dry periods to maximize percolation into the dry riverbed and recharge the groundwater basin.

Should the water district release water occasionally to support fish habitat, it would have very little impact on the city’s water supply, San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper and Los Padres ForestWatch, the plaintiffs in the case, have argued.

"This ruling is a big step forward for protecting the imperiled southern California steelhead in the Santa Maria River system. The Court held that the agencies have discretion to modify operations at Twitchell Dam in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act," said plaintiffs' attorney Maggie Hall with the Environmental Defense Center.

Senior Circuit Judge Carlos Bea, a George W. Bush appointee, dissented from the other two judges and said the recommendation of the Secretary of the Interior at the time the Twitchell Dam was authorized indicated that it was meant to conserve all the water from the Cuyama River during the region’s short rainy season for use during the long dry season.

"I cannot agree that a proposal to send approximately four percent of a community’s primary source of fresh water into the ocean, on purpose, to benefit steelhead trout, substantially accords with a plan that was designed to conserve all the water from that source and to waste none of it into the ocean, especially when it was plain to all who read the Secretary’s Report that the water conservation plan would result in the loss of some steelhead trout," Bea said.

Senior Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder, a Jimmy Carter appointee, was the third judge on the panel.

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Categories / Appeals, Environment, Government

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