Six environmental organizations sue federal agencies over California water project

Initiatives spearheaded by National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service harm native fish species, according to lawsuit.

SAN FRANCISCO—The Trump administration and two federal agencies were sued by six environmental organizations on Dec. 2, with plaintiffs claiming the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorizing a water project in California at the expense of native fish species.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and Natural Resources Defense Council lead a federal lawsuit against NOAA, NMFS and others to the long-term operations of Central Valley Project and State Water Project in California; the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

All six plaintiffs are claiming the federal water projects were politically motivated and violated the Endangered Species Act.

“Contrary to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act … the biological opinions at issue in this case were blatantly and improperly shaped by political motivations and authorize water project operations that will cause grave harm to species and their critical habitat, increasing the risk of extinction of endangered and threatened salmon, steelhead and Delta Smelt,” the lawsuit stated.

The projects at issue, according to the lawsuit, would divert “massive amounts of water” from a network of canals, dams and reservoirs to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for agricultural and municipal uses.

“The operations of the Water Projects have caused devastating environmental impacts and have contributed to severe declines in California’s native fish species, several of which are now listed as endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act,” the complaint stated. “[The] water project operations have been major factors in the decline of the endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon (“winter-run Chinook salmon”), threatened Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon (“spring-run Chinook salmon”), threatened Central Valley steelhead, and threatened Delta Smelt, and in the listing of these and other species under the Endangered Species Act.”

Other harms of the federal water projects, according to the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, include reduced in-stream flows, reduced Delta outflow, increased salinity levels and habitat loss.

NMFS biologists, according to plaintiffs, issued a 1,123-page opinion in July, stating the federal water plan would likely “jeopardize listed salmon and steelhead, as well as Southern Resident killer whales, and was likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.”

Plaintiffs accused NOAA, NMFS and other federal officials of not following the biologists’ recommendations.

“[The] biological opinion included a reasonable and prudent alternative requiring additional protective measures and alterations in Reclamation’s proposed plan in order to avoid such adverse impacts to listed species,” the lawsuit against NOAA, NMFS and the White House stated. “But instead of adopting that biological opinion, which had been signed by multiple staffers and cleared by Fisheries Service attorneys, political appointees at the Fisheries Service and the Interior Department short-circuited required procedures, removed most of the scientists working on the biological opinion, and reversed the findings of staff biologists.”

Institute for Fisheries Resources, Gold State Salmon Association, Defenders of the Wildlife and The Bay Institute also joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs.

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