A topsy-turvy week in a federal courtroom in Fresno, Calif., has led to the imposition of water flow restrictions to aid endangered delta smelt in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta.
Judge Oliver Wanger of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled against irrigators and farmers yesterday in their request for a restraining order to open water pumps on the south end of the delta to maximum capacity.
Dead smelt have been salvaged this week at the pumps, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to order the flow restrictions to go into effect this morning under a standing federal biological opinion. The restraining order would have blocked those limits from taking effect for 14 days.
A separate attempt from environmental groups to reverse a previous restraining order Wanger granted related to the chinook salmon was rendered moot. Attorneys for the groups said the pumping curtailment for the smelt effectively means victory for the environmentalists across the board -- for now.
"The protections for imperiled fish species in California's Bay-Delta will remain in place," said George Torgun, a trial attorney for Earthjustice. "This is good news not only for the ecosystem, but also for salmon fishermen up and down the coast who have experienced a complete closure of the commercial fishing season during the past two years."
Torgun noted that the pumps have not been turned off but rather were "ratcheted back" as part of a delicate compromise with farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.
Wanger's decision marks a reversal from last week, when he granted a restraining order to suspend the salmon bi-op. At the time, he decided to halt the flow limits for 14 days to account for water produced by recent heavy winter storms (Greenwire, Feb. 8).
But the dead smelt apparently jostled his thinking on the subject, prompting a quick ruling from the bench after hearing arguments from both sides. The farmers and water districts seem unlikely to sit still in the wake of the decision and intend to pursue a separate injunction against the salmon and smelt bi-ops.
Also casting a shadow over the fight is an ongoing National Academy of Sciences review of the science behind the bi-ops. Results of that study are expected this spring.
The restrictions that go into effect today will scale back flows to negative 4,000 cubic feet per second, from negative 5,100 cfs. Federal scientists plan to continue monitoring closely for more smelt salvage and could decide to suspend the pumping restrictions if the situation improves.
Sullivan reported from San Francisco.