Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

Supreme Court Gives Environmental Groups A Win By Passing On Smelt Case

Jan 12, 2015

Delta smelt (file photo)
Credit Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court could have big consequences for both valley farmers and the environment. The court decided today not to hear a case brought by local ag groups and southern California water agencies that sought to overturn protections for the Delta smelt under the Endangered Species Act.

The move lets stand a lower court decision that upheld restrictions on the amount of water that can be pumped out of the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta. 

Trent Orr, an attorney with Earthjustice says the decision is an important one. 

Orr: "Once a species like a the Delta smelt is protected under the Endangered Species Act, any federal agency has the first responsibility to keep the species from going extinct and can't weigh economic considerations against that."

Orr says the case was not just about protecting the Delta smelt but the entire ecosystem. 

Orr: "It leaves in place a set of protections that don't prohibit the export of water from the delta for agriculture and municipal uses, but says that a certain portion of the water has to remain in the system and flow at a certain rate in order to keep both the smelt and I would say the entire ecosystem healthy."

But James Burling with the Pacific Legal Foundation says the ruling will hurt valley agriculture. 

Burling: "Farmers, farm workers and consumers in California and the rest of the country have suffered as the Fish and Wildlife Service has ordered water to be diverted from the farms of California into the Sacramento Delta and ultimately into the Pacific Ocean."

Ryan Jacobsen with the Fresno County Farm Bureau says court's refusal to hear the case is a blow to the valley's economy and questions the effectiveness of the current biological opinion by the federal government.  

Jacobsen: "The Central Valley's economic backbone is agriculture and we are continuing to get surface cutbacks that flat-out are unwarranted and they are making no difference to the environment up in the Delta." 

He says that while he's disappointed by the court's action, he hopes Congress will craft a legislative solution to the issue and bring more water to valley farmers.