WATER: Inland Empire agencies sue federal government over fish habitat expansion
Saying important water supplies were at stake, 12 Inland Empire water agencies said Tuesday they’ve sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agencies, including Western Municipal Water District in Southwest Riverside County, oppose the service’s decision last December to expand “critical habitat” protection for the Santa Ana sucker, a rare fish. They warned in April that they might sue.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmentalist group that pressed for the habitat expansion, said the fish’s survival is imperiled by an increasingly human-altered river system. Moreover, the Santa Ana sucker’s survival is a general indicator of the river’s ability to support other species, said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center. Based in Tucson, Ariz., the center operates a branch office in Los Angeles.
The water agencies say the expanded habitat would deprive them of 125,800 acre-feet of water each year they plan to collect from the San Bernardino Mountains. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply an average family of four for one year.
That water could be used indirectly to help avocado farmers and directly to support Inland Empire economic growth.
Local economist John Husing warned earlier this year that the decision would “literally shut down a good portion of the Inland Empire’s economy if allowed to stand,” according to an article in Western Farm Press.
The agencies planned to get this water by increasing water collection and recycling, and recharging groundwater basins around the Santa Ana River.
The city of San Bernardino said it plans to build a “Clean Water Factory” to recycle as much as 25,000 acre feet of water per year, enough for 100,000 people, and use it to recharge a local groundwater basin.
If the agencies can’t get the water, they’ll have to turn to other sources, namely California’s State Water Project, said John Rossi, general manager of Western Municipal Water District. The district serves Lake Elsinore and parts of Murrieta and Temecula. The State Water Project, which ships Northern California water from the Sacramento River Delta to Southern California, is one of the state’s major water sources.
In addition, Rossi said the agencies would lose access to rainwater, which is low in salt content. This low-salt water would help the agencies meet water quality discharge standards set by the state. And using this locally provided water would also free up other low-salt water from the State Water Project for others who need it, such as avocado growers.
Avocados are salt-sensitive, and Southern California water agencies that serve avocado growers typically blend their sources to reduce the salt content to tolerable levels. Colorado River water, the other major source of California’s water, is too salty for avocado farmers to use unblended.
Water agencies participating in the lawsuit against the Service include Bear Valley Mutual Water Company in Redlands; Big Bear Municipal Water District; city of Redlands; city of Riverside; city of San Bernardino Municipal Water Department; East Valley Water District in Highland; Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District; San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District; San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District; Western Municipal Water District in Riverside; West Valley Water District in Rialto; and Yucaipa Valley Water District.
Call staff writer Bradley J. Fikes at 760-739-6641.