Members of the House subcommittee on water and power hear testimony on a controversial federal ruling to expand critical habitat for the Santa Ana sucker fish. Critics say the expansion will harm the region’s economy. From left to right are Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, and Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands. (Neil Nisperos Staff)

Neil Nisperos, Staff Writer
Posted: 10/18/2011 03:37:38 PM PDT

HIGHLAND – The federal government’s protection of a threatened fish could be catastrophic for the Inland Empire, critics told members of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power on Tuesday.

Reps. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands; Ken Calvert, R-Riverside; and subcommittee chairman Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, heard testimony in the Highland Council Chamber from seven witnesses, most of whom opposed the the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife’s expansion of habitat for the Santa Ana sucker.

The sucker is a gray fish with a silvery-white underbelly and dark blotches and stripes. It is found in freshwater from the San Bernardino Mountains to Anaheim.

Area water officials say the critical-habitat ruling that protects the

species on 9,331 acres in Southern California could mean a loss of about 125,800 acre-feet of San Bernardino Mountains water each year. It could also cost ratepayers about $3 billion over 25 years to import water instead from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And ultimately, it’s bad for the economy, Redlands-based economist John Husing told the congressional panel.

“It adds to the general view that if I’m a firm, I’m going to seriously consider avoiding this area,” Husing said. “As an economist who has studied the area for 47 years, this could be the single most important issue for this area’s long-term future because it could shut us down.”

Others echoed that point, adding that it would stunt the growth of a critical driver of the area’s economy: development.

John Rossi, the general manager of the Riverside-based Western Municipal Water District, said the loss of local water would stop large residential, commercial and industrial projects from moving forward in the region.

“One, we won’t be able to demonstrate we have the need,” Rossi said. “Two, this would require us to put a lot more demand on the Colorado River and (imported water), which is anywhere from four to 10 times more expensive.”

But others defended the government’s ruling and the science behind protecting the sucker.

Biologist Ileene Anderson and Ren Lohoefener, the regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, defended the ruling’s rationale.

“The economics that we were presented with don’t seem to ring true based on the reality of what’s going on in the Santa Ana River,” said Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. “In regards to the quantity of water, my guess is that the water still needs to be delivered downstream to users and so it’s unclear that the water would be available for us upstream anyway.”

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