Rendering a historic decision in a debate that has endured 10 years, a U.S. appeals court ruled Wednesday that the federal government must comply with laws protecting endangered salmon and other wildlife when it channels water to Central Valley farmers.
The ruling is a major victory for California environmentalists, who have battled to force the federal government to restore water to the San Joaquin River, one of the west's most abused rivers. The result of the decision will probably be to substantially reduce water supplies to thousands of Central Valley farmers while providing more to the river's embattled fish.
"This is a major victory for the environmental community and the state of California," said Hal Candee, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the case, along with 14 other environmental groups. "There are fisheries all the way out to the delta that would benefit."
Farmers, however, may suffer, warned Richard Moss, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents 25 Central Valley irrigation agencies.
"That water is desperately needed. You're talking about a world-class agricultural economy that absolutely depends on that water supply," he said, adding that the ruling could jeopardize as much as two-thirds of the water that farmers get from the Friant Dam.
The decision invalidates 40-year contracts with the federal government that provide Central Valley farmers with San Joaquin River water from the dam, which was built in the 1940s. Located 25 miles northeast of Fresno, Friant Dam supplies Central Valley Project water to 15,000 farmers from Fresno to Bakersfield. It wiped out a salmon run when it was built and dries up as much as 50 miles of the San Joaquin River in some years.
The case was originally filed against the Ronald Reagan administration, challenging the Bureau of Reclamation's decades-old practice of exempting from the Endangered Species Act and state fish-protection laws water diversions from Friant Dam.
Farm groups and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which administers federal dam projects, are deciding whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, the case returns to federal district Judge Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento, who must hold extensive hearings to determine how much water to return to the river.
The decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, holding that the bureau must consider the environmental laws in deciding how much water to divert, invalidates the farmers' 40-year contracts with the federal government, but it will not mean an immediate interruption in their water supply.
Instead, the farmers will receive water under short-term contracts for three years, but then those contracts must be renegotiated. As those new contracts are written, the government will have to comply with the Endangered Species Act and state laws, which will mean providing as much water as necessary to restore fisheries for rare winter-run Chinook salmon and other fish.
The exact quantity of water needed to restore the river's salmon fisheries is unknown, but estimates range from 140,000 acre-feet a year up to 600,000 acre-feet.
"In a dry year, that's about two-thirds of our firm water supply," Moss said. "If we lose a big chunk of our water supply . . . then we're going to lose a tremendous resource for a tremendous economy."
Most of the farmers using the water under 40-year-old contracts are small-time operations, averaging 100 acres.
In its decision, the 9th Circuit upheld Karlton's decision to invalidate the contracts. The ruling marks the first time that a critical California fish and game code has been applied to a federal dam.
"The Bureau [of Reclamation] had an affirmative duty to ensure that its actions did not jeopardize endangered species," Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote for the court. Tashima was joined by appeals court Judges Dorothy W. Nelson and Otto R. Skopil in the panel's unanimous ruling.
Lloyd Carter, a leader of the group SOS, or Save Our Streams, said the state fish and game law has not been enforced due to the clout of the agriculture industry in California.
"In theory now," he said, "the bureau has to begin releasing water out of the San Joaquin. This is the second-biggest river in California, and this will restore flows in 50 miles of dry riverbed."
Carter called it "a huge victory," but added: "I'm not holding my breath." He said: "You can almost rest assured that the Bureau of Reclamation will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court."
In the 1930s, Congress authorized the construction of Friant Dam, knowing that a large salmon fishery would be wiped out, and it mandated that the contracts would last 40 years. The farmers and federal government argued that the act by Congress preempted any state laws.
"We had always felt on pretty firm ground," Moss said. "Congress said you can't have both the salmon run and the agricultural economy but decided to authorize it anyway."
But Karlton, in his earlier ruling, decided that more recent federal legislation to protect the environment had changed the picture. The Bureau of Reclamation does not have authority to ignore the Endangered Species Act or California fish and game laws, he ruled.