Both sides in California’s on-going legal battle over water will be back in federal court in Fresno Feb. 9.

For the first time in several years, grower-shippers are guardedly optimistic. On Feb. 5, federal Judge Oliver Wanger ordered a 14-day halt to pumping restrictions that had been placed on Northern California water transported to the San Joaquin Valley and to nearly 20 million Californians in greater Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California.

The Feb. 9 hearing addresses a biological opinion and a resulting management plan for salmon. In his ruling, Wanger found the salmon management plan’s pumping restrictions placed on the state’s federal water project were initiated without an environmental analysis as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The optimism among those opposed to the pumping restrictions is because legal precedent requires that temporary halt orders may not be issued unless “there is a likelihood of success on the merits of the case” for a permanent injunction, according to attorneys for the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, two of the plaintiffs.

Among the issues weighing on Wanger’s ruling were California Department of Fish and Game findings that the number of juvenile salmon killed in the pumps in January was about 35% of the maximum allowed by the management plan.
More hearings on the matter are scheduled in March. In addition, legal challenges are pending over another biological opinion targeting the delta smelt.
While the judge’s ruling halts the salmon management plan only for two weeks, an estimated 50,000 acre feet of water will flow to federal water users during that period, according to the plaintiffs. The additional water could save growers millions of dollars, they said.