Group petitions for rescinding of fish habitat plan
Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
Posted: 07/10/2011 10:11:02 PM PDT
Officials from more than a dozen Inland Empire water agencies and cities will meet today with a congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., to voice opposition to a critical habitat plan for a federally endangered fish.
In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed 9,331 acres in portions of creeks and rivers in San Bernardino and Riverside counties as critical habitat for the Santa Ana sucker – a gray fish with a silvery-white underbelly and dark blotches and stripes – found in freshwater from Anaheim to the San Bernardino Mountains.
But it means a loss of 125,800 acre-feet of San Bernardino County mountain water each year, and will cost ratepayers more than $2.9 billion over 25 years for imported water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, water officials said.
“Our water supply that we have been using for over 100 years is now in jeopardy because the water we have been delivering to homes and businesses can now be claimed to be needed for the fish,” said Douglas Headrick, the general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District. “We don’t dislike the fish. We like the fish. But we shouldn’t be making public policy decisions on sloppy science, and that’s what we believe has happened.”
The water agencies will request that the Department of the Interior rescind the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s action in December amending its critical habitat plan. In addition, the agencies are requesting that Fish and Wildlife be required to continue working with them to improve research and conservation efforts for the Santa Ana sucker, and that Congress state that all policies and conservation efforts be based on the best available science, as is typically required under the Endangered Species Act.
Critical habitat areas are federally protected areas that are essential for the conservation and protection of an endangered species. And the Fish and Wildlife Service, Headrick said, has designated as critical habitat area several miles of dry riverbed in the Santa Ana River for the roughly 6-inch Santa Ana sucker.
The fish is native to the Southern California region and found in the Santa Ana River, the San Gabriel River and Big Tujunga Creek in Los Angeles County. It has been on the endangered species list for more than a decade.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is protecting the long stretch of dry riverbed because of its abundant cobble and gravel deposits, which provide a suitable area for spawning and produce algae that the fish can feed on, Headrick said.
That protection is vital, said its advocates, because of the fish’s role in maintaining the ecology near and in local streams.
“By protecting the habitat for this remarkable fish, we not only help (stanch) the worldwide extinction crisis, but ensure our precious water supplies remain protected,” said part of an April article published in the D.C. paper The Hill, written by the Center for Biological Diversity.
That article was responding to Headrick’s claim in an earlier opinion piece published in The Hill that the habitat plan is “devastating to California’s Inland Empire.”
Adam Lazar, a staff attorney for the center, and Ileene Anderson, a biologist there, wrote in the piece that “the Endangered Species Act should be allowed to do its job.”
But Headrick said there are more than a half a dozen nearby areas where viable restoration projects are under way that could serve as critical habitat areas without jeopardizing the local water supply.
“Once you make a commitment to re-establish a fish somewhere, you don’t want to decide later on that that didn’t really work,” Headrick said.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jane Hendron said her agency is aware of the concerns, but stressed that a critical habitat area does not in and of itself result in any specific action.
“It is not a proactive measure so to speak. Just because an area is designated as critical habitat, there is no requirement to undertake an action to help recover a species,” Hendron said. “What it does have an effect on is projects that may be proposed in an area designated as critical habitat that have a federal connection.”
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