Wanger fries bigger fish to dismay of water users

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger found bigger fish to fry and according to the director of the California Department of Water Resources, the Fresno, Calif. jurist’s second fish fry may have the state’s water delivery system “teetering on the bring of collapse.”

Last December Wanger ruled that the biological opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the impact of water movement through the Delta had had an adverse impact on the tiny Delta smelt, a minnow that lives only two years and never reaches a length longer than three inches.

That ruling has already precluded the movement of more than 600,000 feet through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for use by 25 million Californians and about 1 million acres of farmland this winter and spring.

Yesterday, Wanger issued a similar ruling about much larger fish against the federal government about the way it manages waterways in California for winter and spring Chinook salmon runs and the Central Valley Steelhead.

No one is sure exactly what the impact of the 151-page ruling will have on already uncertain water deliveries to about 70 percent of California’s population this season, but no one is saying the fish-favoring ruling will be people positive.

The judge’s decision “is further evidence that the Delta is teetering on the brink of collapse,” said Department of Water Resources Director Lester A. Snow in response to Wanger's decision on salmon and steelhead management.

Snow once again pointed to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s comprehensive, but politically languishing plan for Delta sustainability to protect the fragile environment and ensure reliable water supplies for 25 million Californians, “The clock is ticking, and we must move forward on a Delta solution.”

Wanger has scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday (April 23) to decide what to do about his ruling that the government has not adequately protected the larger fish.

The state and federal water projects move water from Northern California south through the Delta with two large pumping stations. Those stations have been shut down or throttled back since last year to protect the endangered smelt, reducing the water supply to cities and farms.

Since Wanger’s decision last December, cities and farmers have been making contingency plants for significantly reduced water deliveries due to pump shutdowns during peak water-use months this summer, despite the fact the snow pack from the Sierra Nevada over the winter has been close to normal. It was above normal before a month-long dry spell in March.

Wanger’s ruling yesterday only made a tenuous situation even more uncertain.

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