Santa Ana Sucker Habitat Expansion Sucks, Lawsuit-Threatening Water Agencies Tell Feds

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Sucker punched
A dozen water agencies serving nearly 3 million Southern California residents have formally warned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that if the federal agency does not want to be sued, it must rescind the recent expansion of critical habitat areas for the Santa Ana Sucker, a small fish that lives in several areas of the Santa Ana River.

Unfortunately for the FWS, it was a lawsuit from those hell-bent on protecting the Santa Ana Sucker that led to the habitat being expanded.

As Bart Simpson says, "You're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't." Only in this case "dammed" works, too.

Douglas Headrick, general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District and member of the Santa Ana Sucker Task Force, tells the Weekly in an e-mail about the catch-22 the water agencies find themselves in.

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Photo by Paul Barrett, USFWS
Southern California water agencies are struggling to improve "self-reliance and lessen dependence on water imports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta," where restrictions are in place to protect the Sacramento River Delta smelt, Headrick says. So the agencies try to improve and utilize Santa Ana River water and, he fumes, along comes the FWS pressure to protect the Santa Ana Sucker in the form of the daunting-sounding "Final Rule."

"We estimate that the service's 'Final Rule' could result in a net loss of 125,800-acre-feet of San Bernardino Mountain water each year," Headrick writes. "That's enough water for more than 500,000 people."

Headrick claims the agencies "are successfully conserving the sucker and will continue to do so. 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."

He is scheduled to testify Friday before the House Interior Appropriations Committee on behalf of the agencies, which include his water company and Bear Valley Mutual Water Co. in Redlands; Big Bear Municipal Water District in Big Bear Lake; the City of Redlands; the City of Riverside Public Utilities; the City of San Bernardino Municipal Water Department; East Valley Water District in Highland; Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District; San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District; Western Municipal Water District in Riverside; West Valley Water District in Rialto; and Yucaipa Valley Water District.

Their 60-day notice of intent to file suit alleges FWS failed to provide factual and scientific evidence to justify the expansion of the sucker's habitat area and to provide a recovery plan as required by the Endangered Species Act. The feds are further accused of ignoring reports on the habitat by various state and local water agencies.

The agencies are relying on a report of their own submitted by a Redlands economist who claims the habitat expansion "will literally shut down a good deal of the inland area's economy if allowed to stand."

John Husing, who has studied the region for 47 years, claims inland water providers could be forced to spend at least $2.9 billion in ratepayer money over the next 25 years for additional imported water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Public documents issued by the FWS estimate the Inland Empire will lose only $12 million over 25 years.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials received the formal notices of the intent to file suit Tuesday morning. By law, public agencies must do so 60 days before filing a lawsuit, under the theory that the federal agencies can address potential conflicts so suits do not have to be filed.

The FWS gets it in court from both sides. The Santa Ana sucker habitat was expanded after the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity "repeatedly engaged in litigation to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the Santa Ana Sucker," reports the center's web site.

The federal agency had initially granted 21,000 acres of habitat but later slashed the area when it decided the impact to developers warranted removal of protections. A suit the center filed against the FWS in 2007 led the agency last year to protect a total of 9,331 acres, including the sucker's namesake river, the mighty Santa Ana.
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