Suit seeks to block delta smelt rules

The Westlands Water District on Tuesday joined forces with the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority to stop the federal government from enforcing a new set of rules governing the endangered delta smelt.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Fresno says the new rules, issued in December by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "will result in significant harm to Californians who depend on [Central Valley Project] water supply."

The suit seeks to have the new rules governing management of the delta smelt rewritten. While that takes place, the suit asks for "relief from the pumping restrictions" in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that were implemented as a result of the new rules.

"We understand the need to save the species," said Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf. "However, there is zero balance" between the needs of water users and protection of the delta smelt.

Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that west Valley farmers would receive no federal water this season.

The state's persistent drought is partly to blame, Woolf said, but without the new smelt rules, some water would have been delivered.

Instead, she said, an enormous amount of water flows through the delta and into the ocean to satisfy requirements for the smelt rules.

The California Department of Water Resources estimated in December that in an average weather year, the water-delivery cuts could range from 20% to 30%.

Environmentalists said Tuesday that Westlands and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority were trying to capitalize on the state's current drought conditions to turn back the new smelt rules.

Trent Orr, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, said Tuesday that the rules are well written. "We expect the federal government to defend this [lawsuit] rigorously," he said.

The rules, called a biological opinion, govern water-pumping operations by the state Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The two agencies operate massive water pumps that send delta water to Bay Area urban users, San Joaquin Valley farmers and south to Los Angeles and San Diego.

Environmentalists say the effects of delta pumping have forced the delta smelt to the brink of extinction, and they sued the federal government under the Endangered Species Act.

In May 2007, U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger found that rules governing the smelt were flawed and needed to be rewritten. Those are the new rules that were issued in December.

But Tuesday's lawsuit says the newly minted opinion "ignores contrary scientific data, misstates and misapplies the data it cites" and makes claims that Central Valley Project operations are hurting the smelt, when it is actually other factors such as industrial pollution and invasive species of clams that are interfering with the food supply for the smelt.

The suit also says the new rules restrict delta pumping operations, but offer no "meaningful benefit to delta smelt survival or recovery."

Tuesday's 36-page lawsuit is similar to one filed in December over the longfin smelt, a cousin of the delta smelt.

That suit says California Department of Fish & Game regulations protecting the longfin smelt are hurting the state's water supply.

Taken together, Woolf said, rules governing the delta and longfin smelt show the lack of a coherent strategy to manage the delta and protect the species that dwell there.

Named in the lawsuit were several federal agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Spokeswoman Lynnette Wirth said the bureau has not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.