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July 23, 2008 > California water delivery system harms endangered wild salmon populations

California water delivery system harms endangered wild salmon populations

By Garance Burke, Associated Press Writer

FRESNO, California (AP), Jul 18 _ A federal judge ruled Friday that California's water systems threaten to push native, wild salmon into extinction but stopped short of ordering any immediate water cutbacks farmers said would have cost them millions in lost crops.

The ruling in a Fresno federal court Friday ultimately could force regulators to change the way they move and use water to help endangered salmon spawn in the state's rivers and swim downstream into the Pacific Ocean.

Environmentalists and fishermen had asked the judge to order immediate protections for the fishes' habitat, arguing that the collapse of one of the West Coast's biggest wild salmon runs earlier this spring foretold the extinction of related species.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger denied the groups' request to release more water from a federal reservoir to help young endangered winter-run Chinook salmon reach the ocean. That could have left hundreds of acres of almonds, walnuts and tomatoes without irrigation supplies next month, at the height of California's drought.

The judge's ruling established that the canals and pumps that deliver water to 23 million Californians are causing ``irreparable harm'' to two salmon species, as well as the threatened Central Valley steelhead. The second salmon population, the Central Valley spring-run Chinook, is on the federal list of threatened species.

On Wednesday, attorneys for federal and state regulators, farmers, environmentalists and fishermen are scheduled to meet in Wanger's courtroom to discuss how to protect the fish for the next nine months, while federal biologists rewrite their plan to operate water projects tied to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Wild salmon are born in California's streams and rivers and migrate to the ocean when they're juveniles but ultimately return to freshwater to spawn near where they were born.

In between, they navigate the treacherous pumps and canals linked to the delta _ the heart of the state's water delivery system that supplies cities and farms.

Following the unprecedented collapse of West Coast salmon fishing this year, fishermen and environmentalists say more pumping cutbacks are necessary to keep the fish from being killed in the delta's massive water pumps.

Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Water Resources said they could not immediately comment on the ruling.

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