A federal lawsuit filed by a dozen Inland Empire water agencies challenging the Obama administration's decision to expand the habitat for an endangered fish species was rejected today by a U.S. District Court judge.
The suit, filed by the Riverside County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, Riverside Public Utilities and 10 other area agencies, sought to stop the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from doubling the protected space set aside for the Santa Ana sucker, arguing that the expansion would cut deeply into water supplies available regionally.
Judge James V. Selina in Santa Ana ruled that the agencies' suit lacked merit and upheld the government's action.
"We are obviously troubled by the court's decision, which appears to give free reign to federal agencies to interpret scientific information however they see fit, regardless of the inconsistencies, contradictions, omissions or gaps in the data they use to support their arguments," said Douglas Headrick, general manager of San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District.
There was no immediate word on whether the agencies intend to appeal.
They contend a December 2010 ruling by federal officials 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 Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, according to the lawsuit.
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.
Federal officials issued findings in 2005 that concluded state and local conservation efforts to protect the sucker 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 spawning grounds.
The Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity prompted the Wildlife Service to review its habitat preservation efforts on behalf of the sucker.
The nonprofit center sued the Wildlife Service 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.
According to a study by the Moreland, Idaho-based Western Legacy Alliance, which promotes private property rights, the Center for Biological Diversity filed more than 400 species protection-related lawsuits between 2001 and 2009.
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.