Inland Empire water agencies threaten to sue over suckerfish habitat rule

A tiny fish unique to the watershed of Southern California is at the center of a battle that’s pitted water agencies against environmentalists. Representatives of a dozen water agencies were on Capitol Hill Monday, briefing Congressional staffers and threatening to fight the feds in court.

The Santa Ana Sucker lays its eggs on the gravel creek bottoms of runoff from the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains. Last December, the US Fish & Wildlife Service expanded the threatened fish’s “critical habitat” by a thousand acres.

Robert Martin, head of the East Valley Water District in San Bernardino, told Congressional staffers the rule threatens a third of the water supply for a million people who live in the Inland Empire.

"Our concern is that if we get into permitting issues, one of the requirements might be to make releases of this very limited supply of water that we use for domestic purposes right now, to maintain the habitat," Martin said.

Carol Williams of the San Gabriel Valley Water Association said Fish and Wildlife refused to field concerns from local water agencies. "They felt that our estimates of costs, economic impact were speculative, even though we have 30 to 40-plus years of managing the water supply," she said.

Williams said water agencies estimate it will cost about $30 million each year to replace what they’d stored in reservoirs.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said, "the whole notion of the sucker taking water from people really rings hollow." The environment nonprofit sued the Bush administration and won, resulting in December’s ruling on expanded sucker habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service agrees with Anderson; its officials say there have been no restrictions on water usage since the federal government first protected the sucker’s habitat seven years ago.

The Fish and Wildlife Service added that the agency prepared an economic analysis of the cost of protecting the sucker and made it available for public comment.

That doesn’t satisfy the dozen Southern California water districts that’ll decide next month whether to challenge the rule in court.

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