Big win for California salmon! Court blocks water diversion plan (temporarily)

  • Published on May 18th, 2020

On May 11, a federal judge ruled that a federal Bureau of Reclamation water diversion and pumping plan, lethal to Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and other fish species in the Central Valley and Delta, must temporarily restrict water pumping from the Delta. The order blocks the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation until May 31 from increasing the amount of water it pumps from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta through the federal Central Valley Project. The two lawsuits argued that increased water exports would cause “imminent and irreparable harm” to salmon, steelhead and other species protected under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts. United States District Judge Dale A. Drozd (DAD) ruled that “the harms are real, ongoing and are likely to have enough of a population level impact to warrant an injunction.”

Big win for California salmon! Court blocks water diversion plan (temporarily)

By Dan Bacher

According to a March 13 press release from the Golden State Salmon Association,

The ruling comes  in two cases, one brought by GSSA and allied groups and one brought by the state of California. Both seek to overturn excessive water diversions by the Bureau of Reclamation because of the extreme environmental damage they are causing. The ruling resolves a portion of a motion for a preliminary injunction that GSSA and allies filed on March 5.”

”In Monday’s order, the court directed the federal Bureau of Reclamation to reinstate a restriction on south Delta pumping that is more protective of fish populations, including juvenile salmon and steelhead through May 31 when the more protective rule would annually expire.  Baby steelhead and salmon are currently migrating through the Delta,” GSSA stated.

“This is a major victory for salmon fishing families, California’s environment, and the coastal and inland communities that depend on salmon to survive,” said John McManus, president of the GSSA.  “The federal Bureau of Reclamation, under Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, is trying to drain Northern California salmon rivers and the Delta in violation of the law, at great cost to California’s salmon runs, and our court case is putting a brake on those efforts.”

McManus said the federal plan allows boosted water diversions from salmon rivers in northern California and the Delta by 600,000 acre feet at a time when the state and multiple scientific agencies documented the need to reduce such diversions and leave more water in the rivers to maintain salmon and other native wildlife.

”Last July the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scientists rejected the pumping and diversion plan because of the harm it would do to salmon and other wildlife. Later, under pressure from the Trump administration, NMFS reversed course and approved it in a biological opinion, or BiOp,” McManus explained.

”The fishing and conservation groups presented evidence to the court that the lax federal water rules illegally ignored established science demonstrating that protected fish populations have been precipitously declining, that federal water project operations have significant, adverse effects on these imperiled populations, and that existing protections need to be increased to avoid further jeopardizing the species.  Even though federal fish and wildlife agencies until recently supported the science, under the Trump administration, they arbitrarily flip flopped, a reversal noted by the court,” said McManus.

“The federal government is trying to drain northern California’s salmon rivers in order to transfer water to the dry western San Joaquin Valley,” said GSSA Secretary Dick Pool. “This is a violation of the law, at great cost to our salmon runs. We’re thankful the court has taken the first step to reduce excessive pumping this month.”

GSSA and allies also asked the court to restrict the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the agency operating Shasta Dam, from releasing too much cold water from Lake Shasta this spring because that water will be needed later in the year to help salmon successfully spawn.   The court said it would decide this issue later.

“We have a dagger pointed at our heart later this year as salmon return to the Central Valley to spawn.  They are facing rivers too hot to successfully spawn in so we’re hopeful of a positive ruling,” said GSSA Treasurer David Zeff.

“The Trump salmon extinction plan is no joke,” GSSA board Chair Randy Repass.  “It is a clear and present threat to the salmon industry and California’s environment. Thousands of salmon jobs are a little bit safer as a result of this court ruling.”

McManus said that water districts throughout the state, both those getting water from the federal water project and those getting water from a parallel state water project, joined to back the Trump attack on California’s water and attacked Governor Gavin Newsom for allowing the state to defend its natural resources.

”Although much of the legal arguments revolved around the federal government’s obligation to protect winter and spring run Chinook salmon and steelhead, those protections provide some benefit to the fall run salmon that supply the ocean and inland fishery,” McManus concluded.

The other groups joining GSSA in the court case are Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Bay Institute, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and Institute for Fisheries Research.  Legal representation is being provided pro bono by Altshuler Berzon LLP.

About GSSA: The Golden State Salmon Association ( is a coalition of salmon advocates that includes commercial and recreational salmon fishermen and women, businesses, restaurants, a native tribe, environmentalists, elected officials, families and communities that rely on salmon. GSSA’s mission is to restore California salmon for their economic, recreational, commercial, environmental, cultural and health values.

Currently, California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity and 23,000 jobs annually in a normal season.  Central Valley salmon provide about half that much in economic activity and jobs again in Oregon. Those who benefit stretch from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon. This includes commercial fishermen and women, recreational fishermen and women (fresh and salt water), fish processors, marinas, coastal communities, equipment manufacturers, the hotel and food industry, tribes, and others.

(Photo by Restore the Delta)

About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.