Fight over fish could cut water

Nearly two months ago, a Fresno judge invalidated part of a federal water plan because it did not adequately protect Central Valley steelhead and two species of Chinook salmon.

Now, the question is what -- if any -- action should be taken to correct the problem.

Attorneys representing environmentalists and the agencies that oversee and depend on the massive Central Valley Project for their water on Friday began what promises to be an extensive debate on that key question.

In a week that saw Gov. Schwarzenegger proclaim a statewide drought and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials announce water-allocation reductions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the ultimate answer could mean even more cutbacks for water users that depend on the Central Valley Project.

U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger -- who in April invalidated a key part of the federal water plan because he said it violated the Endangered Species Act by not adequately protecting winter-run Chinook salmon, spring-run Chinook salmon and the Central Valley steelhead -- will first decide if any steps need to be taken to protect the fish.

That will likely be decided late next week. If Wanger finds something must be done to protect the three fish species, the trial will then turn to that matter.

Environmentalists are seeking four primary measures to address the issue:

Increase cold-water releases from Lake Shasta to make the Sacramento River's temperature lower at a point farther downstream. That would assist in salmon spawning.

Maintain 1.9 million acre-feet of water in Shasta.

Keep a diversion dam on the Sacramento River near Red Bluff open longer.

Maintain higher water flows in Clear Creek, a salmon-spawning waterway that flows into the Sacramento River.

Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Kate Poole, who participated in Friday's hearing, said the three fish species are being pushed to the edge of extinction.

"It's not clear they will be able to survive these critically dry years," she said. "We need to make sure they get a fighting chance to weather this drought."

The government and its water agency allies think Wanger should do nothing.

Currently, they say, the National Marine Fisheries Service is rewriting a biological report on the Central Valley Project's effects on the steelhead and two salmon species that Wanger invalidated. That should be done by next spring and should address the environmentalists' concerns.

They're also baffled by the environmentalists request to release more water from Shasta, but also maintain 1.9 million acre-feet, said attorney Daniel O'Hanlon, who represents the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which represents water districts -- including Westlands -- covering more than 2 million acres of farmland.

"We can't make sense of that," he said.

Many of the issues -- as well as the participants -- were similar to those in Wanger's courtroom last year in a case involving the tiny delta smelt.

Wanger threw out a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opinion on management of the delta smelt. Ultimately, his order resulted in less water being sent south from the delta pumps.

But government and water-agency attorneys on Friday argued that while many of the legal issues may mirror that of the delta smelt, there are different issues with the steelhead and salmon species.

One key issue is life span. The delta smelt lives one year, so a population crash could imperil the species. But salmon live four to five years, so while a generation could be wiped out, the long-term viability of the species could still remain intact.

Another issue is the Pacific Ocean and whether it is contributing to troubles being experienced by the three species -- trouble in which the Central Valley Project plays no role.