RIVERSIDE – A dozen Inland Empire water agencies will appeal a federal judge’s decision freeing the Obama administration to expand the habitat of an endangered fish species — to the potential detriment of land owners and cities that need the water, it was announced today.
In October, U.S. District Judge James V. Selina in Santa Ana sided with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and rejected a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s plans to double the protected space set aside for the Santa Ana sucker.
The Riverside County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, Riverside Public Utilities and 10 other local agencies argued that the expansion effectively shut off 125,800-acre-feet of water, depriving the region of one-third of its current fresh water stocks.
The reduced supplies could impact one million residents in parts of Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, according to the lawsuit.
”We continue to be troubled by (Selina’s) decision, which, if unchallenged, could set a legal precedent for federal agencies to ignore their prior commitments to land owners and local governments,” said Pat Milligan, president of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District.
He contended the Wildlife Service relied on flawed research — filled with ”contradictions, omissions and gaps” — in deciding to move ahead with sucker habitat expansion.
The plaintiffs’ appeal will be lodged with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Court papers state that the Wildlife Service’s decision to designate headwaters of the Santa Ana River as ”critical habitat” for the sucker will disrupt reclamation operations along the entire channel and result in wasteful releases from the Seven Oaks Dam, located in the San Bernardino Mountains.
The water agencies allege the Wildlife Service violated provisions of the Endangered Species Act by refusing to consult with state and local parties and apply objective scientific criteria in figuring out how best to balance conservation plans against the economic and resource needs of affected communities.
According to the plaintiffs, the federal government also failed to take into consideration that Riverside County’s Multi-Species Habitat Plan has enlarged spawning grounds for the sucker.
Federal officials issued findings in 2005 that concluded state and local conservation efforts to protect the species were paying off. However, in 2010, Wildlife Service representatives reversed course.
Citing a 2004 study, they declared gravel and cobble substrate required for the endangered fish’s survival had been drastically reduced since dam construction. Federal officials want higher volumes of water released from the dam to promote algae growth for the benefit of sucker habitat.
The Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity has been a driving force behind federal action.
The nonprofit sued the USFWS in 2007, arguing that the agency had failed to extend critical habitat to encompass stretches of the Santa Ana River and its tributaries where the fish population was plummeting.
A Wildlife Service spokeswoman said the critical habitat designation will not hinder agencies from drawing water from the Santa Ana or other areas where the sucker spawns; rather, the designation provides an ”additional layer of review” before developers or municipalities can proceed with making any changes along channels recognized as critical to a threatened species.