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Feature Article: River Flows Lawsuit

River flows subject of lawsuit filed against State Water Board

Special to Western OutdoorNewsPublished: Feb 14, 2019


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SACRAMENTO — On Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, a coalition of environmental, fishing and Native American groups led by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) filed suit against the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board).


 Plaintiffs demand that the State Water Board use its own recommendations based on science and environmental law to enact a Water Quality Control Plan protects fish in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers and in the main stem San Joaquin River below their confluence.


These three tributaries of the San Joaquin River have historically supported vibrant runs of tens of thousands of Chinook salmon annually. Diversions of their waters by municipal water agencies, including San Francisco, and local irrigation districts over the past five decades have severely impacted those salmon runs, pushing them to the brink of extinction. The Water Quality Control Plan approved last month codifies what has heretofore only been a tacit approval of such diversions by the State Water Board.


In 2009, the California State Legislature adopted the Delta Reform Act to compel the State Water Board to take prompt action to save historic salmon runs. In 2010, the Board adopted the recommendations of a staff report which determined that, to save this public trust fishery, the San Joaquin River’s flows should be increased to a minimum of 60% of their historic (“unimpaired”) flows during the critical migration period of February through June.


On Dec. 12, 2018, the Board adopted minimum flow standards of just 40% of unimpaired levels on average, rather than the 60% average that its scientists showed was required to restore salmon runs.


PCFFA Executive Director Noah Oppenheim called Friday’s lawsuit, “a long overdue wake-up call that the State Water Board must now do its job to prevent the imminent extinction of this irreplaceable fishery. For decades this regulatory process has been captured by water agencies with no compunctions about hastening the end of salmon fisheries. Today salmon fishermen and fishing communities are raising their voice.”


Joining the PCFFA in filing suit are the North Coast Rivers Alliance and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. All three agree that unless historic flows are restored immediately, the survival of the Delta’s salmon fishery is in jeopardy.


Their lawsuit alleges that the State Water Board’s failure to restore adequate flows in these rivers violates the federal Clean Water Act and California’s Porter Cologne Water Quality Act—which require protection of historic fish runs—and also the Public Trust Doctrine, which forbids the Board from allowing excessive diversions of water needed for the survival of the Delta’s salmon.


“Unless the Board is ordered to comply with the law and these flows are restored at the scientifically recommended levels, California’s salmon will never recover and the fishing families that bring the ocean’s bounty to the public will continue to suffer unjustly,” said Oppenheim.


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