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Court upholds protections for Pacific steelhead, rebuffs farmers

A federal appeals court panel on Friday ruled that wild steelhead remain an endangered species and rebuffed Central Valley irrigators' efforts to relax federal government protections on the Pacific salmon.

Six irrigation districts had challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service decision to list the oceangoing steelhead separately from more plentiful freshwater rainbow trout on grounds that the two fish interbreed and the steelhead were therefore protected from extinction. Both types of Pacific salmon are born in freshwater, but the steelhead migrate to the ocean while rainbow trout remain in rivers and lakes.

Wild steelhead once returned to the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems in the millions each year, but their population has dwindled by 95% due to excessive water use, pollution, dam construction and urban sprawl, Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda argued on behalf of a group of conservationists and fishing enthusiasts.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the steelhead were in need of separate classification, despite their interbreeding. The two salmon species grow to different sizes and have different predators and prey, the court noted, adding that abundant steelhead can regenerate dwindling rainbow trout stocks "but the reverse does not seem to be the case."

The ruling was hailed by the environmental and fishing groups who intervened to defend the government agency against the irrigators' lawsuit. "Anyone who's ever been lucky enough to see or catch a steelhead in the wild knows they're a special fish," said Mark Rockwell of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers.

-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: Steelhead were once found in abundance all along the Pacific Coast. In 2003, the last steelhead trout in Devil Canyon, near Camp Pendleton, was sighted and photographed by a California Fish and Game biologist. Environmentalists fear the fish will become extinct in Northern California too.  Credit: Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (21)

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I know of one Southern California stream where steelhead brought back a rainbow trout population. Steelhead disappeared from the stream in the early 1980's and were gone for almost 20 years. in the late 1990's a few steelhead migrated into the stream and spawned. A thriving rainbow population of rainbow trout now live in the stream. We know from trapping surveys and snorkel surveys that very few of them return to the ocean. Most stay in the stream for their whole life, making them rainbows rather tan steelhead.

Concerning "Bare fields in the San Joaquin Valley," there is simply not enough water to irrigate all of the arid lands in California while protecting the ecology of our waterways.

Concerning "Ravaged agricultural industry." That's BS. The ag business in California has taken a fairly small hit from environmentally-based restrictions on water diversions. Meanwhile, California's fishing industry has been absolutely devastated by abuse of our watercourses, and most of the worst abuses are for the benefit of the ag industry.

I have neighbors that run their sprinklers twice a day in the summer watering lawns that cover 80% to 90% of their non-home pad and driveway space. I also live in minimum lot size of 3/4 acre "horse property". I have no lawn and all xeriscape drought tolerant plantings. My water bill is just about the same as my neighbors because of the baseline amount of water each home gets. There is no financial benefit to cutting one's water use. Baseline should be limited to an amount for cleaning, bathing/showering, cooking, etc. Lawns watering should be considered an option you pay for, like per 100 square feet. Also, water savings must not merely be turned over to development of new homes. There seriously needs to be a water rights discussion and area-wide policy.

"Fatalistic unicorn worshippers?"

Current agri-biz policy subsidies for growing cotton in the desert and rice in the Delta make no sense. Neither does the fact that grass (the kind in your front yard) is such a huge water waste. We can do better.

Greg Maragos please leave California ASAP! Keeping the pacific steelhead on the endangered species list is far more important than irrigating inefficient commercial farms. I can grow the same crops in my backyard.

To all those who have posted in support of the farmers on this. Do you still have lawns surrounding your homes? Do you realize that watering your grass, which shouldn't be grown in this areas climate to begin with, is one of the biggest wastes of water in southern California? Do you realize the polution created from fertilizers and chemicals that run off from your lawns, or the wasted gas used to mow that grass every other week? We don't have enough water to irrigate our farms without pushing another species to extinction. If you really care about these farmers, and the lost jobs, why not do your part and rid your property of your lawn and plant a native garden? Or do you care about your lawn more than the farmers? We already know you don't care about another extinct species.

Since you likely only care about money, do realize your water bill will drop 25-50% once you lose that lawn and switch to native and other low water plants. If you want a lawn move to a climate that supports it.

End the theft of water from the North, and the problem is solved. Oh, that would deprive Angelinos? Tough

Environmentalism has truly jumped the shark. We were green before it was a fad and most Americans believe in good stewardship. But we are not Marxists and sadly, the environmental movement has been taken over by the anti-capitalists and fanatic unicorn worshipers. As a result, we, like many other Americans have had it with the extremism of the environmentalists and we will fight back. It is time that costs from both sides be taken into consideration when determining the wisdom of these decisions. It will come. You people have overreached and are behaving like a bunch of ninnies. We will not tolerate it.

Pooh, pooh the silly farmers, who needs them.
If California and the rest of the country is hungry. Let them eat cake!

Can't the fish be farmed and stock the river?

Well, farmers must do this, that and the other thing to save water. Amazing h0w all these folks with all these vague ideas are not actually in farming. As for san fran, when you dynamite Hetch Hetchy, then maybe you have some room to talk.

Who cares about the "farmers". I mean, how many almonds and alfalfa can a person eat? Salmon taste better, are healthier to eat, and they don't pollute water (and food) with pesticides. Eat Wild Salmon. Stay thin and healthy, stay away from welfare farmers(most of the junk food they produce is subsidized by the government) and their garbage GMO corn products.

That ruling is a tragedy - for the farmers.

I love the environment, and I love to fish, but I've seen the enormous land holdings in the San Joaquin Valley that are simply bare, and our food supply (and the jobs food production supports) is coming from Mexico under NAFTA.

This country is in a brutal recession, and frustrating production by overly protecting species like the steelhead is not the answer! People come first, and the cost to the United States farmers and to the food supply and trade balance is out of balance.

Perhaps it is time to change these environmental policies that have simply gone too far? on the outside, red in the middle.

Sounds like another activist judge with a problem that's running rampant these days in government and in the left-wing corporate media; it's called "cranial rectumitus"

Since when are farmers a "special interest?" Feeding America is a "special interest?" This ruling is missing a critical ingredient...common sense!

Greg Maragos : I think we can work with Southern California as far as your water needs go. Los Angeles has been taking water conservation seriously, and I have no doubt that it can be done. The farmers are the problem. They use the vast majority of the water. The problems are that they are not using the most modern irrigation methods, which save a lot of water, and they are not growing crops that are appropriate to the conditions they grow in. Cotton takes too much water. They need to find an alternative crop that does not, or one that can bring in as much money on less irrigated land. There won't be more water, and there may be less. It isn't the swimming pools, because once you fill them, you only need to top them off now and then. We have to have smaller lawns, because we don't use the whole thing, and landscape with something more appropriate to the desert environment. Up here, I'm replanting my garden with mostly drought tolerant plants. I've put most of my yard in brick, planting areas, a fish pond, and a garden path. The trees provide shade and don't need to be watered anymore. Don't take this personally, because we are in this together. San Francisco

Damned farmers; growing cotton, rice and alfalfa in the desert; pumping soooooo much ground water, SEA WATER is entering the aquifers; use soooooo much pesticide and chemical nutrients, the soil is saturated with toxic residue - 'Farmers, the 1st Environmentalists??' No, not when there's a lousy buck to be made. More like, 'Farmers - the 1st and last POLLUTERS and PARASITES. Ever drive 5 North and see 'lakes' of water sprayed into the air, only to evaporate?? How much taxpayer WELFARE goes to these frauds??

Greg Marangos - Farmers will have to adapt and perhaps finally start to use water sustainably. Once a species is gone, it is gone forever and seemingly unimportant species like the delta smelt are an essential part of the food chain. When will people like you wake up and realize that we continue to degrade the environment for short term business reasons. It is time we push back on the special interests so that our kids arn't cursed with a degraded and dying environment!!

"...The ruling was hailed by the environmental and fishing groups..."

Oh, good heavens, of course it was. These are the people who choked off Southern California's water supply, allowing almond farms to be destroyed, all in the name of "protecting" a finger-sized smelt that swims in the irrigation delta.

Dead trees, dead farms, unemployed farm workers, local economies ruined--what WILL they do for an encore????


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