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Judge reviews biological opinions in water dispute

Issue Date: December 8, 2021
By Christine Souza

A federal judge is reviewing a proposed order requesting approval of an interim operations plan for 2022 that would affect Central Valley Project and State Water Project agricultural water users.

U.S. District Court Judge Dale Drozd in Fresno is reviewing legal filings submitted last month by the Biden administration in consultation with the Newsom administration.

The proposed order involves an interim operations plan that governs how to protect fish and wildlife in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta during coordinated operations of the Central Valley and state water projects. For different reasons, agricultural water users and environmental groups also opposed the current plan, with the court for the Eastern District of California in a legal referee role and no final resolution reached yet.

The proposal halts pending lawsuits that stem from the 2019 biological opinions issued by fisheries agencies under the Trump administration, but seeks a cease-fire to the litigation and allows the Biden administration to begin a new set of biological opinions.

The 2019 biological opinions were challenged by the state of California and environmental groups.

Amid a prolonged, historic drought, the proposed plan prioritizes water deliveries for municipal and industrial water users on the basis of meeting minimum health and safety requirements. It also offers many state and federal initiatives to be undertaken during the 2022 water year.

Justin Fredrickson, California Farm Bureau water and environmental policy analyst, said the effort by the administrations to put in place an interim operations plan is driven by current dry conditions and the precarious status of the winter-run chinook salmon.

He added that the plan, if ordered, would be a "fairly drastically modified version of the 2019 opinions," with a subsequent interim operations plan under an expected new set of opinions in 2024.

"One of the most problematic things is that the proposed interim operation plan states that the state and federal water projects could neither schedule nor deliver any stored water from Lake Shasta before adopting an approved temperature plan," Fredrickson said, adding that this comes in early to late May, long after the time when farms need water to plant and irrigate crops.

"The proposed revised interim operation plan is very precautionary in nature, given the status of the winter-run particularly, generally raising the bar on various parameters such as river temperature, end-of-summer reservoir targets and take limits consistent with the state's incidental take permit," Fredrickson said.

Friant Water Authority, a CVP water contractor that operates and maintains the Friant-Kern Canal, stated in a news release that the proposed interim operations plan "risks reducing California's water supply."

"If the actions it includes are implemented this water year, the likelihood that the water supply that is desperately needed in the valley could be lost, increasing the number of domestic wells that will go dry and farms that will be fallowed," the Friant Water Authority release stated.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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