The federal district judge at the center of the controversy over the restriction of water movements through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to save fish sided with farmers last week when he issued a temporary order to increase pumping through the Delta.
The order is in place for only about two weeks, but it means an additional 40,000 to 50,000 acre feet can move through the Delta to the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos for storage and use this year by cities and farms.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno issued the order in the midst of a series of welcome Pacific storms that have boosted statewide rainfall and snow accumulation totals above seasonal averages.
The order can be renewed after 14 days or rescinded depending on the fish numbers.
Wanger is the judge who has issued stop pumping orders to protect Delta smelt and salmon.
Agricultural users asked for the temporary reprieve from reduced pumping because the storms are creating heavy Delta outflows that would otherwise be captured for storage if the fish-protection restraints were not in place. There are estimates that up to 190,000 acre feet of water has flowed out the Delta as a result of the storms that could have otherwise been captured for use by cities and agriculture if pumping restrictions were not in place.
Dan Nelson, executive director, San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority said Wanger’s order “secured a small measure of relief “ for the San Joaquin Valley in allowing an increase in pumping water to storage facilities south of the Delta.
The temporary restraining order issued by Wanger “recognizes that the salmon biological opinion that was sending water to the Pacific Ocean instead of going into storage for use by farms and 25 million Californians did not take into account the harm caused to people and the human environment.
"The principle the court applied is very clear. The judge found that the federal agencies should have considered alternatives that would still adequately protect the fish while causing less harm to people.” Nelson said.
The ruling finds that water agency plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the claims that the water pumping restrictions imposed by the so-called salmonid biological opinion (BiOp) would cause irreparable harm.
Wanger held that the federal agencies likely violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by imposing, without adequate review, water supply restrictions that could harm “the human environment, including job losses, dislocation of farm workers and other residents, lowering of the tax base, and prejudice to community services and schools; land fallowing and probable related adverse effects on air quality; overdrafting of groundwater and resulting land subsidence and adverse effects on water quality; as well as likely rationing of municipal water required for public use…”
Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District was quoted in the Fresno Bee as being “elated” by the judge’s decision.
The Friant Water Authority also hailed the decision as did Western Growers.
“This is great news for farmers,” said Tom Nassif, WGA president. “We have lost tens of thousands of acre feet over the past couple of weeks because of limits on Delta pumping due to environmental restrictions.
“While this is a temporary restraining order and not a final order, the judge clearly indicated the importance of considering human and economic impact in the case,” Nassif said.
Wanger acknowledged that much of the harm to farmers and cities has come from the drought, but also noted that “it is undisputed that any lost pumping capacity directly attributable to the 2009 Salmonid BiOp will contribute to and exacerbate the currently catastrophic situation faced by Plaintiffs, whose farms, businesses, water service areas, and impacted cities and counties, are dependent, some exclusively, on (federal and/or state water project) deliveries.”