The Los Banos, Calif.-based San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which represents more than 25 water districts, agencies and water service contractors in California’s San Joaquin Valley, has filed a federal lawsuit to block implementation of a controversial opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Water authority challenges Marine Fisheries Service opinion

The suit charges that the federal agency failed to conduct a required environmental review, that it used faulty science to develop measures meant to protect fish and that there was inadequate public review of the science the agency used to support its decision.

“The public has a right to know how agencies like (National Marine Fisheries Service) make decisions, and that was completely inadequate in this instance,” Dan Nelson, executive director of the water authority, said in a statement released by his office. “Decisions that affect the water supply for three million acres of farmland and 25 million people can’t be made in secret.”

The opinion, submitted June 4 to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, calls for even greater reductions in federal and state exports of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to San Joaquin Valley growers and to southern California.

Previously ordered cutbacks in irrigation water this year have forced San Joaquin Valley growers to leave fallow about 500,000 acres, according to Congressman Devin Nunes, whose district is in the valley. Estimates of additional water cutbacks linked to the opinion range up to 500,000 acre feet, he said, and that could double the amount of fallow acreage next year.

The reductions in water exports proposed by the Marine Fisheries Service would be in addition to other restrictions that reduced water allocations to California growers and cities by 30%. The affected growers are not limited to those producing nuts, tree fruit, melons and vegetables in the San Joaquin Valley. Avocado groves in southern California have had to endure major cuts in irrigation water shipments.

“Federal laws governing environmental review apply to everyone,” Nelson said. “The National Marine Fisheries Service needs to follow the rules like everyone else when it makes decisions that have such enormous impacts.”

The 800-plus-page opinion issued by the fisheries service concluded that California’s federal and state water projects jeopardize native species of salmon and sturgeon and even killer whales in the Pacific Ocean.

A similar suit filed by the water authority and the Fresno-based Westlands Water District is pending. That suit seeks to block another federal opinion that ordered cutting back pumping of delta water to protect a small fish, the delta smelt. The two plaintiffs won a victory in that litigation when a federal judge ordered that the effects on humans must be considered by environmental agencies when determining steps to be taken to protect endangered species.