FRESNO -- A federal judge Friday put a temporary hold on a controversial management plan for endangered salmon, a critical decision that will send more water to parched farms and ranches on the San Joaquin Valley's west side.
The 23-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno is in place for just two weeks, but it comes as there is increased water flow into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Agriculture officials say an additional 40,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of water will be sent to federal water users in the next two weeks, saving ranchers and farmers an estimated $10 million to $12 million.
"I am elated that Judge Wagner issued this order," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, whose 600 farms in western Fresno and Kings counties have struggled because of pumping cutbacks triggered by updated management plans involving endangered salmon and delta smelt species.
The ruling could bode well for Westlands, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California -- which serves 19 million people -- and other plaintiffs in the case against the federal government who are seeking a permanent court order. Temporary orders cannot be granted unless there is a "likelihood of success on the merits" of the case.
The ruling could increase the meager supply in the Del Puerto Water District, which relies on federal water from the delta to supply growers along Interstate 5 from Vernalis to Santa Nella. Its 2009 allotment was just 10 percent of the contracted amount.
"It's a step in the right direction," General Manager Bill Harrison said. "Whether it translates into a water supply for us in the near term is something we're trying to figure out."
The extra water pumped over the next two weeks would be stored in San Luis Reservoir until farmers use it.
The delta pumping restrictions have not had a major effect on water suppliers with long-held rights to tributary rivers, including the Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts. They could face cutbacks as the state and federal governments try to fix the delta.
Wanger's ruling said water-pumping restrictions that are part of the salmon management plan were put into place without conducting a critical environmental analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act. That analysis would consider alternatives to pumping reductions and take into account the environmental effect of the management plan on humans.
Salmon plan rewrite sought
Water users ultimately want the salmon management plan rewritten -- a battle that will continue Tuesday in federal court, as well as in a series of March hearings -- with less emphasis on reductions in delta pumping to help the endangered species.
As water agencies hailed Friday's ruling, however, questions remained over a second endangered species that affects water pumping -- the delta smelt. The endangered fish has a similar controversial management plan that is being challenged by urban and agricultural water users.
Birmingham said Wanger's ruling shows that delta pumping restrictions put in place under the salmon management plan "are causing catastrophic hardships for the people who live and work on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley."
For the state's salmon fishing industry, the ruling was devastating, said Larry Collins, a San Francisco-based fisherman and vice president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
"I feel so powerless," he said. "I haven't salmon fished for two years, and salmon is 70 percent of my income."
Birmingham said he empathizes with the salmon fishing industry, but said Wanger's ruling found increased delta pumping would not harm the species.
Collins disagreed: "Every minute those pumps are on means I am not going fishing in 2012."
He was referring to juvenile salmon that could be sucked in and killed by the delta pumps. By 2012, they would be oceangoing adults.
The ruling is the latest twist in a legal battle dating to April 2008, when Wanger invalidated a management plan for winter-run Chinook salmon, spring-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead.
Wanger said the plan violated the Endangered Species Act by not adequately protecting the species.
A similar legal argument is being used for the endangered delta smelt. The March hearings before Wanger will involve the salmon and smelt disputes.
As Wanger's order increases water pumping dealing with salmon, there is a chance restrictions could be put in place to protect the smelt.
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.