Agriculture

Lawsuit claims Delta fish harmed by relaxed water standards

Much of the environmental groups’ lawsuit deals with the San Joaquin River, which collects flows from the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers before entering the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, seen here.
Much of the environmental groups’ lawsuit deals with the San Joaquin River, which collects flows from the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers before entering the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, seen here. Sacramento Bee file

Relaxed water quality standards during the drought have harmed fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, three environmental groups claim in a lawsuit.

It cites nearly two dozen instances, some of them on the San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers, in which rules were eased to allow more water for farms and cities.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, says the changes did not get the required approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It describes losses to salmon, smelt and other fish.

“This is just becoming habit now,” said Kate Poole, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiffs. “The agencies aren’t even trying to come up with ways to meet these requirements.”

The Bay Institute and Defenders of Wildlife joined the NRDC in the lawsuit. They claim that the EPA was required under the federal Clean Water Act to approve changes to Delta standards by the State Water Resources Control Board.

An EPA spokeswoman had no comment. Thomas Howard, the state board’s executive director, said last week that he did not think the allegations had merit.

This is just becoming habit now. The agencies aren’t even trying to come up with ways to meet these requirements.

Kate Poole, Natural Resources Defense Council

Much of the lawsuit deals with the San Joaquin River, which collects flows from the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers before entering the Delta. The plaintiffs note, for example, that the state board last year eased the lower Stanislaus’ standard for dissolved oxygen, a key need for fish.

Water suppliers note that they had to cut back their deliveries while also releasing water into the lower rivers to benefit fish.

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts plan to provide 75,000 acre-feet of their Stanislaus water this spring under an agreement with state and federal agencies. The water will aid salmon moving out to sea before being pumped in the Delta toward purchasers in the western San Joaquin Valley.

“In addition to benefits for fish and farms, this proposal allows New Melones (Reservoir) to make positive storage gains for the first time in four years,” said Peter Rietkerk, general manager of SSJID, in a news release earlier this month.

The districts have senior rights that allow them to get up to 600,000 acre-feet from New Melones, part of the federal Central Valley Project. Reservoirs on the Tuolumne and Merced rivers are owned by local agencies, but they have state and federal flow requirements.

Howard said he signed off on the plan because the drought has so depleted New Melones that there’s a need to maintain enough cold water flows for fish to last throughout the rest of the year and into 2017.

John Holland: 209-578-2385

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