Judge Orders Review of Water Pumping Limits
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, March 17, 2010Last Update: 4:59 PM PT
By MARIA DINZEO
CN) - A federal judge in Sacramento sided with California water agencies and contractors in their dispute with the federal government over pumping restrictions aimed at protecting endangered salmon. U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger said the government failed to take a "hard look" at how the limits would impact farms and communities vying for water.
The contractors challenged a biological opinion issued last June by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which declared that two state water projects would jeopardize endangered salmon species in the San Francisco Bay Delta.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation responded by reducing water allocations "to avoid jeopardy and adverse modification." The government's plan cut water exports by 5 to 7 percent, or about 330,000 acre-feet of water, according to the ruling.
Contractors argued that the restrictions on the Central Valley and State Water projects placed an undue burden on state water contractors, who were already facing cuts to their water supplies from drought, but still had to supply water to California residents.
Tackling several consolidated cases, Judge Wanger said the government's failure to examine the biological opinion's potentially negative effects on people and their environment violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
"It is hard to imagine more significant adverse effects to the human environment than were effectuated by implementation of [the pumping restrictions]," Wanger wrote. He said the government failed to take the requisite "hard look" at how the reductions would impact local communities.
"[T]hat such reductions have the potential to significantly affect the human environment are beyond dispute," he wrote.
Reduced pumping capacity will undoubtedly harm the water service areas dependent on state water contractors, Wanger said, citing the potential loss of crops, farms, businesses and groundwater, and a possible reduction in air quality.
The judge found the government in violation of federal law, but said he wouldn't rule on a preliminary injunction until after a hearing set for late March or early April.
"The interplay between the NEPA violation and [salmon] jeopardy is a complex one that has not yet been properly briefed," he wrote.