Federal Judge lifts delta pumping restrictions

FRESNO — A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily lifted Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumping restrictions designed to help endangered salmon, siding with urban and agricultural water users who said the move would not harm the fish.

The order by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger will be in place until June 15. For west-side agriculture, including farmers and ranchers in the Westlands Water District, that could mean another 200,000 acre-feet of water above what would be delivered with the pumping restrictions in place, said Tom Birmingham, Westlands' general manager.

In real-world terms, he added, it will mean an additional 75,000 acres of farmland could be put back into production — and with it more people put to work.

"I am thrilled with the ruling," he said.

But whether the increased water deliveries actually happen is still unclear.

Pumping restrictions designed to protect another threatened fish, the tiny delta smelt, have been on the back burner because they are less restrictive than those covering the salmon. But now that the salmon restrictions have been lifted, "in theory, the smelt restrictions should limit" pumping, said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposed the water users' request.

Birmingham said the possibility exists that the smelt pumping restrictions could wipe out every drop of water gained by Tuesday's ruling.

That said, he added that so far this year, pumping restrictions to help the smelt — which is listed as a threatened species — have been less onerous than last year.

Also in play is a pending Wanger ruling involving the delta smelt, which involves similar legal arguments to those used for the salmon. That ruling is expected any day.

The federal government and its environmental allies could appeal Wanger's ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wanger ordered federal officials to monitor the increased pumping. If more endangered spring-run Chinook salmon or Central Valley steelhead are found around the pumps or are being killed by them, the federal government or environmental groups can ask Wanger to reverse his ruling.

The ruling followed Wanger's decision last week that found water officials must consider humans along with fish in limiting use of the delta for irrigation.