By GARANCE BURKE
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A federal judge temporarily lifted pumping limits Friday designed to protect endangered wild salmon in order to speed more irrigation water to California's drought-addled fields.
Some of the country's largest farms had pressed for the protections to be suspended to nurture their fields and orchards. West Coast fishermen argued the limits were necessary to save their dwindling catch.
"This means there's progress, and anything's better than nothing," said Tim Heskett, 44, who grows 150 acres of pistachios near the tiny community of Mendota, on the west side of the parched San Joaquin Valley. "I got this little ranch that I'm trying to keep together, so maybe this is a sign of a little bit of hope."
In normal years, the sweeping valley grows most of the country's fruits and vegetables, but a persistent drought and restrictions on pumping from the state's freshwater estuary have hammered the region, causing drastic job losses and other economic woes.
After hearing hours of testimony from both sides this week, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger granted farmers' request for a temporary restraining order, lifting the pumping restrictions for two weeks.
Environmentalists warned that would heighten the risk that fish were ground up in the pumps.
"We're very concerned that this may be the last nail in the coffin of these species that are on the brink of extinction already," said Erin Tobin, an attorney with Earthjustice.
The pumping restrictions are part of a plan by federal biologists to safeguard endangered salmon as they spawn in the state's rivers and swim through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to reach the Pacific Ocean.
Environmentalists and fishermen sued to get those protections in place, arguing that the collapse of one of the West Coast's biggest wild salmon runs two years ago foretold the extinction of related species.
Even as recent storms have replenished reservoirs, pumping in the freshwater estuary has been curtailed to protect juvenile winter-run Chinook as they navigate the treacherous pumps and canals linked to the delta -- the heart of the state's water delivery system that supplies cities and farms.
Wanger said the federal government could return to court to ask for the limits to be reinstated if more salmon are found around the massive pumps or scientists find other evidence that fish are being harmed by unrestricted pumping.
If not, water districts plan to ask for another two-week extension, said Tom Birmingham, general counsel for Westlands Water District, whose farmers fallowed more than a third of their 600,000 acres last year due to the shortages.
The two weeks of additional water will be enough to irrigate 11,000 acres of land for a year and relieve "catastrophic harm," Birmingham said.
Fishermen warned the order risked extinguishing their livelihood.
"We've been tied up at the dock for a thousand miles of coast for the last two years," said Larry Collins, a salmon fisherman and president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, the oldest commercial fishing association on the West Coast. "It's unbelievable that he could rule this way to kill all the baby fish in the pumps."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.