Judge suspends Calif. salmon plan for 2 weeks

A federal judge has suspended a salmon recovery plan in California's San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta for 14 days to account for water produced by recent heavy winter storms.

Judge Oliver Wanger of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California on Friday granted a temporary restraining order that effectively reopens water pumps on the south end of the delta that had been restricted to help an endangered run of chinook salmon.

The order, which was requested by a group of water districts and farmers, means a federal biological opinion issued to protect the winter run of chinook under the Endangered Species Act has been suspended. The restraining order may be extended by another two weeks if the same groups seek that ruling.

Pumping on the south end, which feeds irrigators and orchards in the San Joaquin Valley, has been limited since Jan. 20. The federal recovery plan is intended to give the salmon a better path to the Pacific Ocean, where they feed and mature until returning one day to the Sacramento River to spawn upstream of the delta.

Attorneys for the Westlands Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and state water contractors, among others, urged Wanger to reopen the pumps for business. They said a recent run of winter storms, which has soaked the coast and dumped several feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada, should justify the suspensions so that a percentage of the water could be stored for use later in the year.

Wanger agreed, saying the need to help farmers hit by a poor economy has temporarily outweighed species protection goals. Better to capture the water now, he said, than to let if flow out the Golden Gate unimpeded.

"The storms are occurring now. That water will not otherwise be preserved," Wanger said. "The storm events that are now occurring and predicted to occur in the next few days in San Joaquin/Sacramento watershed will provide potential water supplies for storage in the San Luis Reservoir that cannot be replicated and will not recur."

As for the species, Wanger said losses would be minimal in February and more likely in March, when the pumping restrictions would likely be back in place.

"As time passes and March approaches ... more significant potential harm to the species may occur," he wrote in the ruling.

Attorneys who argued against the restraining order said they were weighing their options on how to reinstate the salmon biological opinion.

"We and our clients are very disappointed in the ruling and what this means for salmon and steelhead that are migrating through the delta right now, many of which are already being taken at the pumping facilities, as well as our fishermen clients who depend on healthy salmon and steelhead populations," said Erin Tobin, an attorney at Earthjustice.

Click here to read the order.

Sullivan reported from San Francisco.

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