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Measure protects fish at farmers' expense

LOS ANGELES -- Federal officials acted properly when they curtailed water extraction from California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect fish and orca species at the expense of farmers and other water users in central California, a U.S. app...

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
An aerial view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California is shown in this April 15, 2009 file photograph. REUTERS/Robert Durrell

LOS ANGELES -- Federal officials acted properly when they curtailed water extraction from California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect fish and orca species at the expense of farmers and other water users in central California, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Dec. 22.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2009 opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service to force the cutbacks in water use, which have been in effect since then.

The decision, which comes as California faces a crippling drought that is entering its fourth year, represents a blow to agriculture in the state's fertile Central Valley.

Several local water agencies sued to challenge the 2009 environmental review, arguing that its scientific analysis was inadequate. A U.S. district judge in 2010 found fault with certain aspects of the opinion and sent it back to the National Marine Fisheries Service for revisions.

Federal agencies appealed the decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which in an opinion released on Dec. 22 overturned several of the lower court's findings and ruled in favor of federal agencies that implemented the curtailment.

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The lower court judge did not give enough deference to the National Marine Fisheries Service's power to reach scientific conclusions and waded too deeply into a review of those findings, the appeals court ruled.

Circuit Judge Richard Tallman wrote in the court's 80-page decision that the extraction of water from Central Valley rivers supports farms, electrical power dams and people's everyday water needs, but it also threatens the viability of fish species.

"People need water, but so do fish," Tallman wrote.

The dispute involves the sustainability of several fish species including the endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon and the threatened Central Valley steelhead, as well as orca whales that feed on fish when they enter the ocean.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, when it released its opinion in 2009, found that curtailments to protect fish and orcas would affect an estimated 5 to 7 percent of the available annual water that is moved by federal and state water pumps.

A representative from the California Department of Water Resources, which intervened on behalf of the water agencies suing over the curtailment of water, declined immediate comment on the ruling.

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