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Judge calls Delta salmon protection plan ‘bad science’

POSTED September 23, 2011 10:04 p.m.

The government will be forced to rewrite a plan to protect endangered Delta salmon from water pumps, following a Tuesday court decision which overturned parts of the plan for lacking scientific merit.

The National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion, issued in 2009, had called for strict flow rates for delta water pumps, which ship water to farmers south of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. The move was intended to save the lives of the salmon, which can be diverted away from their spawning grounds along with the water.

U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger ruled against the measures on Tuesday in a 279-page decision, describing the flow rates as “bad science” and parts of the opinion as “arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful.”

“Yet again the courts have rejected the discredited science used to justify the implementation of a flawed biological opinion,” said U.S. Reps. Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) and Jim Costa (D-Fresno) in a joint statement. “We have consistently called on NMFS to implement the Endangered Species Act appropriately and with correct science. Thus far, the agency has done neither.”

Wanger did not throw the plan out wholesale, noting that the fish must still be protected, but found that the current plan could not be shown to do so.

The exact impacts of the ruling remain uncertain, as the NMFS scrambles to rewrite the plan. But pumping restrictions will be altered in some fashion. That could be good news for South Valley farmers, and those reliant on the Delta-Mendota Canal.

“The economy of this state is tied to reliable water deliveries,” Cardoza and Costa said. “The federal government’s use of sloppy science to justify massive water cuts without any consideration of alternatives that would protect water deliveries to farmers is unconscionable. The 26 million people south of the Delta, which includes our farm communities, deserve better.”

Tuesday's ruling will likely affect Turlock Irrigation District operations, said TID spokeswoman Michelle Reimers. She noted TID sources its water from the Tuolumne River, which is the San Joaquin River's largest tributary, and is required to release water from Don Pedro Dam to meet fish flow requirements.

The district is uncertain of the exact impact the decision will have, but Reimers lauded Wanger's ruling, as TID “supports decisions made by sound science” – unlike the now-overturned biological opinion.

“TID has always acknowledged there has to be a way to serve the needs of the environment and the people who depend on that water supply for their livelihood,” Reimers said.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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