Interior to look at Delta impacts

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

New lawsuits follow signing of Delta legislation

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO -- As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrapped up a string of ceremonies to sign historic legislation guiding management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, some old battles continued.

Touting another element of the federal government's proclaimed involvement in Delta issues this year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced on Nov. 9 that Interior, in cooperation with the Department of Commerce, had asked the National Academy of Sciences to review protections of the Delta smelt.

The review is described as a well-rounded look at "key questions" surrounding the Delta, Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said. Those include the economic impacts of a federal biological opinion released late last year, expanding water-management restrictions to protect the smelt, a tiny fish species native to the estuary.

"Obviously this is a very heated issue, and unfortunately one that has not been addressed in recent years," Barkoff said. "We're looking at different options, making sure nothing was left on the table."

NAS is expected to release the first of two reports on March 15.

A federal judge, meanwhile, told the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that it had not sufficiently considered environmental effects of its new smelt restrictions.

The bureau implemented its rules to protect Delta smelt following a December 2008 biological opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which said delta diversions were killing the fish.

The decision came in a lawsuit filed by water districts, which argued the restrictions had contributed to depletion of Central Valley aquifers and reduced air quality from fallowed farm fields.

But those developments were accompanied by two new lawsuits filed this week by the Center for Biological Diversity. The suits seek to increase federal protection for the Delta smelt and the longfin smelt, which also resides in the Delta.

The fish are important beyond the Delta because they are bottom-dwellers on the food chain, said John Miller, a spokesman for the group.

The greater protection "will benefit not just longfin smelt and Delta smelt, but also Central Valley salmon, sturgeon, and steelhead populations that are economically important to coastal and Central Valley communities," Miller said.

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