SAN FRANCISCO -- California farmers reeling from three consecutive drought years are facing further water restrictions under a federal plan to aid imperiled salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon and killer whales.
The National Marine Fisheries Service issued a sweeping biological opinion yesterday, saying the species face dire environmental conditions unless irrigation from the federal Central Valley Project and the California State Project -- already at historic lows -- are curtailed even further.
"What is at stake here is not just the survival of species but the health of entire ecosystems," said Rod Mcinnis, NMFS's Southwest regional director.
Alongside the directive for reducing irrigation supplies by another 5 to 7 percent a year, NMFS offered recommendations to help the troubled species. Among them is a decision to completely open the Red Bluff Diversion Dam on the Sacramento River to allow chinook salmon and sturgeon unimpeded passage.
Steve Evans, conservation director at Friends of the River, applauded the decision to operate the dam in a "gates out" position, but otherwise he found the opinion lacking in terms of salmon restoration north of major dams at Folsom and Mount Shasta and cleanup of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
"They're realizing the halfway measures they took before aren't enough, so that's good," Evans said. "But it's very unclear to me whether the various provisions they have for the delta are going to make any immediate difference."
At the state level, where officials have lately questioned pumping restrictions related to a separate biological opinion on the delta smelt, the chief of the Department of Water Resources, Lester Snow, said the federal decision "further chips away at our ability to provide a reliable water supply for California."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) was even more assertive. "This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world's eighth largest economy," he said in a statement. "The piling-on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act."
The new restrictions would cut deliveries to the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast and Southern California by about 330,000 acre feet per year, according to NMFS. Agricultural water use in the state is about 30 million acre-feet annually.
Court challenge is certain
Commercial fishing groups, which had not analyzed the decision at press time, are likely to view the decision favorably, given the emphasis on restoring salmon, which supports many jobs in the region.
But farmers and water districts immediately attacked the estimated effect of the restrictions and indicated a court challenge is imminent. Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman at the Westlands Water District, said the measure will lead to "more water loss" than the 330,000 acre-feet projected by NMFS.
"We're at 10 percent [of historic delivery] right now," she said, predicting a 500,000 acre-foot reduction under the new order. "There's not much more you can take away."
Woolf said a lawsuit is guaranteed over NMFS's failure to consult the National Environmental Policy Act or seek a public review of its findings. A similar suit was filed against the delta smelt biological opinion, with a federal judge ruling in the district's favor.
"We anticipate we will be back in court over the same issue," Woolf said.
NMFS said it subjected its research to two independent peer review panels, by the CalFed Independent Science Board and the Center for Independent Experts.
The biological opinion is the latest wrinkle in a long battle over the Sacramento River's winter and fall-run salmon, which ultimately swim to the Pacific Ocean, but have fallen dramatically in recent years. The low numbers have led to collapsed fisheries and prompted the second straight closed fishing season this year.
NMFS scientists said their order was directed to help the chinook, the Central Valley steelhead, the southern population of North American green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales, which feed on the salmon. The agency's directive is empowered by its authority under the Endangered Species Act.
Click here to link to the opinion.