Search Penny Hill Press

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Biological Opinions for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: A Case Law Summary

Kristina Alexander
Legislative Attorney

For decades biologists, water users, and lawmakers (both federal and state) have attempted to craft a system that meets the needs of California water users while ensuring sufficient usable water for fish. Under California’s hybrid system of appropriative water rights, users are issued permits for water diverted from rivers and streams regardless of the users’ proximity to the source of water. The state of California has issued permits to the Bureau of Reclamation (the Bureau) to store, divert, and deliver water from the federal Central Valley Project (CVP), which consists of facilities on the Sacramento, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin Rivers, including the Shasta, New Melones, and Friant Dams. The Bureau diverts CVP and State Water Project (SWP) water from the southern portion of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the southern part of California. Although the amount of water available from the CVP/SWP is relatively constant, notwithstanding periods of drought and periods of excessive rain (e.g., El NiƱo years), the amount of water diverted from major rivers and their tributaries has increased over time, and fish populations have declined.

In the CVP/SWP watershed, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects multiple species or populations of fish, including the endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, the threatened Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, the threatened Central Valley steelhead, the threatened Southern population of North American green sturgeon, and the threatened delta smelt. The ESA requires the Bureau to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (together, the Services) to see whether planned actions are likely to jeopardize a listed species or damage critical habitat. (FWS is consulted for impacts related to the Delta smelt. NMFS is consulted on potential impacts to salmon.) The consultation process concludes with the Service issuing a biological opinion (BiOp) along with an incidental take statement, allowing the federal action to proceed without prosecution for incidental harm to listed species. If the Service finds the action is likely to jeopardize a listed species, a jeopardy BiOp is issued, which will include reasonable and prudent alternatives (RPAs) to the planned action to avoid extinction of a species. Otherwise a no-jeopardy BiOp is issued.

In 2004, the Long-Term Central Valley Project and State Water Project Operations Criteria and Plan (OCAP) was issued by California and the Bureau to meet the system’s water needs. Pursuant to OCAP, the Services issued both jeopardy and no-jeopardy opinions. Lawsuits challenged both types of BiOp. If jeopardy was found, water users argued that the BiOp failed to consider impacts on junior water users sufficiently. If no jeopardy was found, environmentalists and fishermen argued that the BiOp did not fully consider the extent of the harm to the species. Judge Oliver W. Wanger of the federal court for the Eastern District of California has found the BiOps or the RPAs to be inadequate for various reasons, including failing to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). (He retired from the bench at the end of September 2011.) Some of those decisions have since been appealed to the Ninth Circuit. This report summarizes the proceedings on the BiOps issued since 2004.

Date of Report: January 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 12
Order Number: R41876
Price: $29.95

To Order:

R41876.pdf  to use the SECURE SHOPPING CART


Phone 301-253-0881

For email and phone orders, provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.