Judge: Feds must consider how delta rules affect people

FRESNO -- A federal judge stunned and delighted West Side farmers Friday, ruling that the federal government must consider the effect on humans -- not just fish -- when allocating delta water.

U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger did not tell officials how to operate the Central Valley Project, and he said it was up to them to manage the massive water pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

But Wanger said officials must focus not just on protecting the endangered delta smelt when discussing these issues. They also must take into account "the harm being visited upon humans, the community and the environment." He said officials must explain and justify how they reached their water-allocation decisions.

A few months ago, the federal government in effect reduced the volume of water pumped out of the delta by issuing new rules to protect the smelt. That means West Side growers are receiving less water for crops.

Wanger's ruling raised growers' hopes of getting some of that water back, although the case is far from over.

"The long and short of it for us today is this is a good thing, for the simple fact that it recognizes the impact that is being felt" by farmers and residents of the San Joaquin Valley's West Side, said Westlands Water District spokeswoman Sarah Woolf.

Wanger's ruling came after a four-hour hearing on a lawsuit by Westlands and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority to stop the federal government from enforcing a new management plan for the delta smelt.

The lawsuit was filed in March, more than two months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a set of federal rules to protect the smelt. The updated rules were drafted after Wanger had invalidated earlier regulations because they did not comply with the federal Endangered Species Act.

A central piece of the lawsuit sought to nullify the updated smelt management plan. Wanger made no ruling on that part of the lawsuit. But he found that a second claim -- that the new smelt plan lacked an assessment on the environmental effect on humans -- was valid.

The updated smelt management plan resulted in a sharp reduction in water deliveries for agricultural and urban users in the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area and Southern California.

It's not known if Wanger's order will prompt the federal government to increase water deliveries from the delta.

But Wanger made it clear that if the water exports stay at current levels, which West Side officials say are too low and give no consideration to human needs, federal officials must explain why.

Wanger said the delta smelt remains endangered and at risk of extinction, but he also said valley residents are facing adverse environmental effects driven by a persistent drought and a cut in water deliveries.

Wanger's order is in effect through June 30, or when the water temperature in two delta channels -- Old River and Middle River -- reaches 77 degrees Fahrenheit for three days.

Higher temperatures can adversely affect the smelt.