Southern California water supplies could be further cut by a federal judge’s ruling today that invalidated a permit allowing pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to impact three endangered fish species: two types of Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger ruled that the federal government must redraft its permit governing water exports from the delta, where pumps suck in Sierra Nevada snowmelt and send it through a series of aqueducts to Southern California faucets. In crafting a new permit, the National Marine Fisheries Service must consider what impacts pumping will have on the three endangered fish, the judge ruled, as well as the effects that climate change will have on water flows in Northern California rivers that feed the delta.
That process is already underway because of last year’s similar decision on the delta smelt, which has restricted water exports this year. If not for an average winter in the Sierra Nevada, the San Diego region could have faced mandatory restrictions on its water use.
The ruling adds three endangered fish to a growing list of species affected by water exports from the delta. Wanger ruled last year that water exports should be reduced when the three-inch long delta smelt is likely to be found nearby.
No one yet knows exactly what the decision means for Southern California water supplies. It has the potential to expand the times of year when restrictions are placed on water exports from the delta.
Water managers said they were unsure what effect the ruling would have. John Liarakos, spokesman for the San Diego County Water Authority, said the agency hadn’t received the official ruling yet and would not likely have a comment on its findings until it had a chance to review it.
Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said in a news release he was unsure of the ruling’s full effects on water deliveries.
Environmental groups and the government agencies will meet in court in Fresno on April 25 to begin arguments about how to protect the three species while the new permit is being drafted. That process will happen quickly, and a ruling could follow within a month.
Brian Smith, a spokesman for Oakland-based Earthjustice, one of the environmental groups that filed the suit, said it was too early to say whether pumping restrictions would expand because of the ruling.
“It could, but nobody knows yet,” he said. “What happens next is up in the air.”