SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge heard motions from both sides Tuesday in a case alleging that operators of a dam and reservoir in San Mateo County are harming three of the area's endangered species.
The environmental nonprofits Our Children's Earth and Ecological Rights Foundation brought the suit against Stanford University in 2013.
They claimed that the university's operation and maintenance of the Searsville Dam and Searsville Reservoir are harmful to three species protected under the Endangered Species Act: the Central California Coast steelhead, the California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake.
At Tuesday's hearing, the parties appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte, with the university moving for a stay and the plaintiffs moving for summary judgment.
Arguing for the university, Sarah Flanagan said that if a stay were granted the university would consider feasible alternatives to the nonprofits' suggested installation of a pipeline to protect the species by diverting the water flow away from their critical habitats.
Laporte asked about dredging the dam and reservoir as a possible alternative, but Flanagan said that option would create "hundreds of thousands of truckloads of sediment."
"It would take decades to get the sediment out of there," she said.
Instead, Flanagan said installing an orifice in the dam connecting to a sluice directing water passage directly to the San Francisco Bay would be "the most effective and least environmentally harmful option."
Christopher Sproul, who argued for the environmental groups, contended that a stay should not be granted because the university and resource agencies have been "back and forth on the issue" for 14 years.
Laporte said that she was not inclined to stay the case, and she turned to the groups' motion for summary judgment.
Sproul said he believed that "if all the evidence is going to come in, there won't be a triable issue of fact."
"Stanford's approach relies on knocking out our evidence," he said.
But Laporte said that "there's quite a bit of debate as to who's right and who's wrong, and to causation."
"I think it's a triable issue," she said.
She noted that there are no documented California red-legged frogs in the area, and there haven't been since 2007.
"It may be global warming, it may be disease, we don't know," Laporte said. "And I think the same is true with the snake.
"Stanford has put forward evidence there, and you've put forward nothing to contradict that."
She said that the groups' offering of a "museum specimen" of the snake at issue that is "100 years old" was "extremely far-fetched."
Laporte also rejected the nonprofits' request for a preliminary injunction requiring the university to install a pipeline.
"I don't see how I could do that," she said. "There's too much permitting. I don't want to have Stanford pursue something that regulators won't approve."
Flanagan argued that since "we're closer to trial than we were at the beginning of this case, a preliminary injunction seems like a waste."
Near the end of the hearing Laporte seemed to be frustrated.
"I'm trying to bring an aura of reality to both sides as to what this may or may not mean," Laporte said.
Sproul pointed out that his clients "went to town with the evidence, which we hope was useful."
"It wasn't useful," Laporte said. "It was like a filibuster - the important parts get completely buried."
Laporte did not indicate when she expects to rule on the motions.
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