FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Central Valley water agencies are challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's allegedly misguided attempt to protect endangered delta smelt with pumping restrictions, saying any benefit to the fish population will come at a high social and economic cost in a time of drought.
The Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority filed a sharply critical lawsuit in Federal Court, opposing the FWS' 2008 biological opinion used to justify the pumping restrictions on two major water projects: the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.
The State Water Project, the largest state-operated water supply, provides water to about 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland in the San Francisco Bay area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast and Southern California.
The Central Valley Project irrigates about 3.25 million acres of farmland and channels water to more than 2 million people, most of whom live in the Central Valley.
The water agencies say the pumping restrictions "will cause needless and unlawful loss of water at a time when people desperately need it." They note that less than a week ago, on Feb. 27, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state-wide drought emergency, saying the drought could cost the state $3 billion and more than 80,000 jobs in 2009.
The government's biological opinion "ignores contrary scientific data, relies on speculation and surmise, arbitrarily attributes adverse effects to project operations that are actually linked to other stressors such as pollution and invasive species, and fails to rationally relate the impacts of project operations to population level effects," the plaintiffs claim.
They admit that water pumps "do take some delta smelt," but say the activity doesn't affect overall population levels. And they say the FWS is "distorting" the Endangered Species Act. The ESA protects threatened fish and animal species, but not at the expense of necessary human activities - especially when conclusions are based on "poor science, speculation and surmise," the plaintiffs claim. The government could have avoided the "unwarranted and needless measures" imposed under the biological opinion, they say, had it responsibly fulfilled its obligations under the Act.
The water agencies predict dire consequences if the court doesn't enjoin the government's restrictions: "In 2009, hundreds of thousands of otherwise productive lands in the San Joaquin Valley will be fallowed, and orchards will be destroyed. Farmers in this region and the businesses that serve them will be put out of business. Communities in the region will suffer severe blows in 2009, as the local economic base disappears, and residents leave in search of employment elsewhere."
The lawsuit also points out environmental impacts of less water, including land fallowing, increased dust emissions and excessive groundwater pumping.
The plaintiffs seek relief from the pumping restrictions and an order remanding the biological opinion for reconsideration. They are represented by Daniel O'Hanlon with Kronick, Moskowitz, Tiedemann & Girard.
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