SoCal Water Agencies Sue Feds over Sucker Fish

Published September 26, 2011

Twelve Southern California water agencies are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for expanding critical habitat areas for the Santa Ana sucker fish. The water agencies say there is a lack of scientific evidence to justify Fish and Wildlife’s decision.

Unintended Environmental Consequences

The agencies fear the expansion of critical habitat along the Santa Ana River will upset flood control, water conservation, and groundwater recharge efforts affecting most of western Riverside and San Bernardino counties. 

“Water agencies are successfully conserving the sucker, and will continue to do so,” said Douglas Headrick, general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, in a press statement. “Ironically, the Fish and Wildlife Service is hindering this positive environmental progress while destabilizing regional water supplies and the economy of much of inland Southern California, which depends on reliable, affordable water.”

According to the statement, studies cited by Fish and Wildlife to justify its decision are “inconclusive at best, and at worst, contradict the Service’s arguments for expanding the critical habitat area.”

Speculative Science

Headrick told Environment and Climate News sound science does not justify Fish and Wildlife’s determination.

“Our response is that the science was not developed to make the determinations that they made,” he said. 

Headrick said there was a lot of guess work in Fish and Wildlife’s determination. Fish and Wildlife often used speculative guess work, justifying critical habitat designation using speculative terms such as ‘we believe’ certain events might happen.

Headrick says it is “certainly not good public policy to spend enormous amounts of money, whether it be in water or facilities, to enforce protection mechanisms that don’t do anything to protect species. What we want them to do is go back to the critical habitat that was designated through a public process in 2005.”

In the water agencies’ 60-day notice of intent to file suit, officials reminded the Fish and Wildlife Service that the Endangered Species Act requires the Service to cooperate with state and local agencies in resolving potential conflicts between the needs of endangered species and a state’s management of water resources.

The decision may impact the water supply for 3 million people in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Activist Group Applauds Feds

Contrary to the Southern California water agencies, the Center for Biological Diversity believes the Service’s decision was based on sound science.  

“We think they did a good job of including all of the aspects that are essential to keeping the Santa Ana sucker alive and reproducing in the Santa Ana River,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Anderson said under the Bush sdministration the Fish and Wildlife Service identified critical habitat for the Santa Ana sucker but did not include the Santa Ana River eve though the fish was living in the river. The Center filed a lawsuit in 2005 to challenge the designation. 

“The current designation is completely based on sound science and wasn’t any political intervention this time. It was letting the biologists do their job of what was actually needed for this species to survive the Santa Ana River,” Anderson said.

Anderson considers the current designation to be quite limited and only what is needed to keep the fish alive. 

“This isn’t a robust designation by any stretch of the imagination,” Anderson said.

Costs Passed to Consumers 

Headrick counters that water agencies will be strongly affected by the designation and the impact will be handed down to their customers.  

“If the regulation stands and they begin to use the water to move gravel for fish, we would have to call on more water from the Sacramento Delta. The cost of importing water is somewhere between maybe two and four times as much as using the local water,” said Headrick. 

“We only get our money from our customers,” Headrick explained. “So there is no way for water districts to pick it up. They would have to pass it on at some point in time.” 

Headrick said the water agencies had already made substantial investments in protecting sucker habitat prior to Fish and Wildlife’s determination. Under what is called the Conservation Team, annual surveys have assessed sucker habitat and mapped out mitigation projects. 

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.