Judge gives vindication but no relief for state’s imperiled salmon

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge struck a largely symbolic blow for imperiled salmon and steelhead Friday, declaring that the state’s vast water-export system is putting the fish at risk but rejecting environmentalists’ key demands for change.

U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger of Fresno said in a 118-page opinion that the Central Valley’s winter- and spring-run salmon as well as the remnants of its once-thriving steelhead population are being threatened by the dams and aqueducts that store and move water around California.

The water projects’ operations “appreciably increase jeopardy to the three species,” Wanger concluded, saying it is “undisputed” that water exports will in the short term continue to kill eggs, fry and juveniles while reducing the abundance and distribution of the fish and the chances of long-term recovery.


But the judge denied several remedies suggested by environmental attorneys with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, such as storing more water behind Shasta Dam to be released for migrating salmon and opening a pivotal diversion dam’s gates to allow the fish to reach spawning grounds.

Fishermen who have seen this year’s salmon season canceled because of a historic slump in returning fish gave the ruling a tepid review.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns., one of the plaintiffs. “It verified what we’ve been saying all along -- that the fish are in jeopardy. But he did nothing to fix it.”

Wanger’s decree stems from a long-running battle over a 2004 biological study by the National Marine Fisheries Service that was used to justify boosted water exports from Northern California.

Citing the threat to salmon and steelhead, environmentalists successfully sued last April. Federal officials plan to wrap up a new biological study by March spelling out operational changes needed to keep the state’s water system functioning without endangering the fish.

Wanger, meanwhile, held a series of hearings over five weeks in June and early July, letting both sides argue about whether short-term changes were needed to safeguard the fish in the meantime.

During those hearings, state and federal water agencies voluntarily agreed to some operational changes to better protect the fish, such as earlier opening of a diversion dam and increased water flows down a key tributary. But environmentalists and fishermen wanted more.

The judge’s ruling Friday forcefully sided with environmentalists on the peril facing the fish, even spelling out a worst-case scenario in which the entire population of winter-run salmon in 2009 could be wiped out if officials fail to hold back enough cold water in Shasta Dam.

But he said a “scientific and evidentiary dispute” undercut the merits of environmentalists’ proposed changes. He set a hearing Wednesday to hear further arguments.

Wanger’s latest decision comes nearly a year after he ordered a pivotal shift in water operations because of concerns about Delta smelt, a tiny endangered fish that lives only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. That ruling has resulted in a 30% cutback in Delta water exports this year.