Judge’s Ruling Protecting Habitat of Fish Could Set Back Several Projects

Times Staff Writer

In a decision that could affect Southern California flood control, drinking water and sewage treatment projects, a federal judge has ruled that critical habitat must be set aside for the endangered Santa Ana sucker.

San Francisco-based U.S. District Judge Susan Illston gave the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service a year to designate protected habitat for the fish. She also ruled that during that time, the agency cannot issue any permits for activity that would potentially harm the fish.

That provision delighted environmentalists, but others said it could halt a variety of projects, including some designed to protect the fish.

The Santa Ana sucker, once common in Southland rivers and streams, is found in only 25% of its historic range because of urban development, mainly the encasing of large portions of rivers and streams in concrete.


Fish & Wildlife Service and Department of Justice staff in Washington, D.C., Carlsbad and Sacramento involved in the case said they had not seen the court’s ruling and so could not comment on the specifics.

But Pat Foulk, a spokeswoman for the California/Nevada Fish & Wildlife Service office who is familiar with dozens of critical habitat legal cases, said it would be extremely unusual for a judge to issue such a broad ban. “That could really throw a wrinkle into a variety of projects,” she said.

Dick Zembal, natural resources director with the Orange County Water District, which along with other agencies uses the Santa Ana River, said such a ruling could stop projects such as sand removal for flood control in the city of Riverside, the release of treated sewage and storm water into the river, and even a nearly completed recovery plan for the endangered fish.

He said that recovery plan would require digging deep holes in the riverbed, depositing gravel and other activities to try to restore habitat for the fish. In exchange for such restoration and conservation work, water districts and others would be able to destroy portions of habitat or even the fish itself, Zembal said.