Environment & Science

Federal appeals court upholds environmental protections for salmon

Louvers at the Skinner Fish Facility in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta divert most fish away from pumps that lift water into the California Aqueduct. Water agencies, environmentalists and farmers have quarreled for years over water allocations from the Delta.
Louvers at the Skinner Fish Facility in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta divert most fish away from pumps that lift water into the California Aqueduct. Water agencies, environmentalists and farmers have quarreled for years over water allocations from the Delta.
Mae Ryan/KPCC file photo

Listen to story

01:00
Download this story 0MB

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that water managers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta must take into account the needs of endangered fish, a new opinion that comes as part of a lengthy court battle.

The effect of the decision is to back environmental restrictions on the operation of Delta water flows.

Central Valley farmers have long relied on water pulled from the San Joaquin Delta to irrigate crops. Threatened and endangered species like Chinook salmon need cool, fresh water for spawning. 

In 2009, scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that water pumping planned in the Delta would alter freshwater flows into the region, harming several species of salmon including winter-run Chinook and steelhead.

Central Valley water contractors, farmers, and southern California’s water wholesaler - the Metropolitan Water District - countered that they rely on their historical share of that water, and brought suit.

Now Judge Richard Tallman, delivering a decision on behalf of a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, has affirmed the scientists’ opinion – writing, “People need water, but so do fish.” His opinion overturns a lower court ruling that the scientists’ report was without basis in the record.

The California Department of Water Resources, which has sided with the farmers, says it’s still reviewing the case.

Judge Tallman’s opinion opened with a passage from John Steinbeck’s California classic, East of Eden, with an extended description of drought.

“And then the dry years would come, and sometimes there would be only seven or eight inches of rain. The land dried up and the grasses headed out miserably a few inches high and great bare scabby places appeared in the valley,” Steinbeck wrote.

“Then the farmers and the ranchers would be filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley…People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking.”

While current shortages have little bearing on the facts of the case, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Kate Poole says “despite California’s severe drought, we need to remember that by being good stewards of our waterways, we ensure there will be enough water to go around for all of us in the long run.”

These consolidated salmon cases are legally similar to another escalating dispute over a biological opinion for the tiny silver fish called the Delta Smelt. In that dispute, a district court also overturned the scientists’ opinion, only to see the environmentally-driven flow restrictions restored by an appellate panel.

The Ninth Circuit’s latest decision “is not really surprising, based on [that] earlier decision regarding delta smelt,” says Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir. “In fact we’ve actually petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear that.”

The Supreme Court’s decision on the delta smelt case is expected early next year.