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Water exports to continue, judge rules in smelt suit

June 23, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A federal judge Friday rejected pleas from environmentalists to temporarily curb pumping of water exports from Northern California that they fear could push the endangered delta smelt closer to extinction.

U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno sided with state and federal water managers, who contend that the tiny fish have in recent days moved out of harm's way, fleeing the massive pumps that ship water south from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Concerns about the increasing number of smelt deaths prompted officials this month to temporarily either shut down or sharply reduce the output of federal and state pumps that supply two aqueducts that carry water as far south as San Diego.

The pumping resumed in earnest Sunday, building to a peak by midweek. During the first few days, more than 350 smelt were sucked into the pumps, the bulk of them in the state's facility.

With fish losses mounting, the environmental legal firms Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice petitioned Wanger for a temporary order that would have curtailed water exports.

Many biologists who study smelt say the diminutive fish -- protected under the federal Endangered Species Act -- is in imminent danger of extinction, and the losses this year could push the population over the edge.

Aside from the loss of adult fish, they fear that large numbers of juvenile smelt also are being killed by the pumps, which are so powerful that they can reverse the tidal flow in delta channels. Smelt are poor swimmers and can fall prey to the pull of the pumps and perish.

State and federal water managers argued that temperatures near the pumps have risen so high that the smelt almost certainly had fled, as they do in late spring, to colder water near San Francisco Bay. By early this week delta water temperature reached 77 degrees, considered lethal to smelt.

Ted Thomas, a state Department of Water Resources spokesman, said agency officials believed the increase in smelt fatalities in recent days was due to fish that had perished because of the rising water temperature.

Thomas said water officials were "relieved" by the judge's ruling, which averted a situation that quickly could have turned into a crisis. A couple of water districts in the south San Francisco Bay Area, which depend on delta exports, were facing steep cutbacks, and San Joaquin Valley farmers could have been hard hit.

Environmentalists argued that any pumping restrictions would have been relatively brief and probably would not have posed a severe threat to water users. But with water exports continuing unabated, the pumps remained "a significant threat" to smelt survival, said Andrea Treece, an Earthjustice attorney.

Because the pumps were revved up before the smelt could flee, the fish essentially will remain trapped by the reverse flows in parts of the delta where warmer water temperatures would prove deadly to them, she said.

"The water is flowing backward at a pretty good clip," Treece said. "We remain worried. Every day is critical to the survival of this species."

If the number of smelt swallowed by the pumps fails to decline soon, environmental attorneys say they may be forced to return to Wanger's courtroom in hopes of winning an injunction that would stop the pumps long enough to allow the smelt to escape to cooler water.

Federal water managers believe the fish are long gone, partly because of their efforts. They flushed 30,000 acre-feet of water into the delta earlier this month to help negate reverse flows and give the smelt a better chance of swimming toward the San Francisco Bay.

Jeffrey McCracken, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, said the judge's ruling reflected "an appropriate balance" between the needs of the fish and people.

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