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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 17:24 EDT

Federal Judge Says Salmon on Verge of Extinction

July 19, 2008

A federal judge has concluded that California’s water operations are driving some salmon runs toward extinction — but he declined to intervene.

The order, issued late Friday by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno, contained both good news and bad news for environmentalists and commercial salmon fishing advocates, representatives of those groups said.

Although they did not win immediate measures to protect the fish, the judge’s conclusions mean regulators will be forced to impose more protective conditions when they issue a new permit in March, lawyers said.

“It’s a clear signal that business as usual in the Delta is not going to be acceptable,” said Kate Poole, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

At issue is how water is stored in Northern California and delivered through the Delta to parts of the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Those operations have taken a severe toll on several fish populations.

The order addressed winter-run salmon, spring-run salmon and steelhead. It did not address fall-run salmon, the backbone of the state’s commercial salmon fishery that collapsed last year and forced the state’s first-ever closure of the salmon season. Fall-run are not covered by endangered species laws.

“The system is badly broken,” Poole said. “The record high exports that we’ve been taking out of the Delta have been crashing fish and killing the fishing industry. These agencies are pretty much incapable of turning that around.”

Environmentalists and fishers sought more cold water for Sacramento River salmon, minimum flows on Clear Creek and opening a diversion dam at Red Bluff.

The judge denied those requests but scheduled a hearing next week to chart a course for other requests, if environmentalists decide to pursue them.

“The conflict continues,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

The ruling follows Wanger’s order in April that, for the second time in a year, struck down an endangered species permit for the state’s Delta-centered water system.

A year earlier, Wanger blocked a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that was supposed to implement limitations to prevent Delta smelt from going extinct.

Wanger followed up that order by sharply curtailing Delta pumping.

The April order struck down a similar permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service that is meant to protect winter-run salmon, spring-run salmon and steelhead from extinction.

That permit had been issued in 2004 under unusual circumstances. Although biologists in the federal agency concluded that issuing the permit could push the fish to extinction, that conclusion was overturned by James Lecky, at the time a regional boss but now the Bush administration’s top official overseeing marine endangered species.