Judge rules against water system

Times Staff Writer

For the second time this year, a judge has ruled that management of California’s water system is illegally imperiling fish, making it increasingly likely that the state will have to pump less water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Southern California cities and Central Valley farms.

U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger issued the ruling Friday and ordered a hearing for next week at which he could issue a stay in the case, forestalling any immediate effect on the pumping operation.

The ruling was another victory for environmentalists who have been attacking the state’s delta operations on multiple legal fronts, arguing that water shipments are helping drive the once abundant native delta smelt to extinction.

“I think it certainly demonstrates we need to take a pretty hard look at what we’re doing to this system and find other ways of meeting water needs than ‘Let’s pump the delta dry,’ ” said Andrea Treece, associate attorney for Earthjustice, which won the ruling on behalf of a coalition of environmental and sport-fishing groups.

“I don’t think anyone is trying to get the pumps shut down. They’re trying to save a species.”


Wanger invalidated a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opinion that had concluded that the federal and state water operations did not jeopardize the survival of the tiny smelt, which is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The delta smelt is indisputably in jeopardy as to its survival and recovery,” Wanger wrote in a 120-page opinion.

The “no-jeopardy finding is arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.”

The fish and wildlife agency was already rewriting the opinion but is not expected to issue a new one until next year.

In a separate case this spring, a state judge threatened to turn off the delta pumps after finding that the state Department of Water Resources had not received proper authorization under the California Endangered Species Act to operate the pumping.

The state has obtained a stay in that case pending an appeal.

Meanwhile, the smelt’s fate has grown more precarious. When researchers went looking for larval smelt last week, they caught 25, compared with 300 last year.

“The survey this year is much lower than we expected,” said Jerry Johns, water resources deputy director.

But Johns argued it was wrong to blame the smelt’s plummeting numbers entirely on the water operations.

“We’ve got to be looking at this from a broader standpoint,” he said.

Scientists suspect a number of factors besides the pumping are at play in the smelt’s decline, including toxic contaminants in the delta and invasive species that are altering the waterway’s food sources.

Johns said toxic levels of pesticides were found in the smelt’s spawning waters this year. “This is the first time we’ve seen a toxic event like this,” he said.

“You’re going to get started on an immediate solution, but we need to turn the right knob. It’s possible we turn the pumping knob and nothing happens to the delta smelt.”

The court rulings are placing increasing pressure on one of the largest water diversion projects in the world.

The pumps are so powerful they can reverse flows in the delta’s water channels and have changed the balance of salinity in the delta, which empties into San Francisco Bay.

“I hope it’s marking a turning point where we can force some real change in how this system is exploited,” Treece said of the rulings.