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Court upholds habitat protection for Santa Ana sucker

October 24, 2012 |  2:53 pm

Santa Ana sucker. Credit: Paul Barrett / USFWS

A federal court judge has upheld a controversial plan to protect 9,300 acres of critical habitat in rivers, creeks and washes in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties needed by the threatened Santa Ana sucker to complete its complex life cycles.

Of particular concern are the northern reaches of the 96-mile-long Santa Ana River system that environmentalists contend must be protected so seasonal ebbs and flows can move gravel to downstream spawning grounds.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge James V. Selna “is a clear victory for the survival of the species,” said Adam Lazar, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “This sucker will get the protections it deserves.”

Selna rejected claims in a lawsuit filed by two cities and 10 water districts against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the agency’s decision to designate the critical habitat. They said it imposes restrictions on water conservation and flood control operations that could affect water supplies for 1 million residents.

They also argued that some areas designated as critical habitat are dry for most of the year and therefore of no help to the sucker.

Environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity, CalTrout, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society intervened in the case on behalf of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which had determined that those areas were essential because they provide spawning material that is critical to the survival of the species.

The suckers, which evolved in regional flood cycles thousands of years ago, have lost 95% of their historic range since the 1970s. They have mottled gray backs and silver bellies, grow to about 5 inches in length and have large, thick lips and small mouths that suck up algae and other organisms for food.

Critics of the federal plan have dubbed the sucker “Southern California’s delta smelt,” a reference to a protected 2-inch fish whose movements restrict pumping operations of the state’s biggest water projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“This ruling does not affect water quality and supply for anybody,” Lazar said. It requires only that the cities and water districts consult first with the Fish and Wildlife Service before taking steps that could affect the sucker’s habitat, he said.

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-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Santa Ana sucker. Credit: Paul Barrett / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service