Santa Ana Sucker Fish Habitat Expansion Upheld by Federal Court

A federal judge has upheld a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service final rule that doubles the critical habitat area of the Santa Ana sucker fish in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana ruled in favor of critical habitat designation for more than 9,300 acres of Southern California waterways, including stretches of the Santa Ana River. Local water agencies said they were disappointed by the ruling, which could pave the way for a habitat expansion that would jeopardize future water supply projects.

“We are obviously troubled by the court’s decision, which appears to give free reign to federal agencies to interpret scientific information how they see fit, regardless of the inconsistencies, contradictions, omissions or gaps in the data they use to support their arguments,” Douglas Headrick, general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, said via an Oct. 22 statement from the Santa Ana Sucker Task Force. The organization of local water districts and cities in Southern California (including many ACWA members) formed in 2010 as the Fish and Wildlife Service began to reconsider the fish’s protected habitat.

Headrick was more conciliatory, though, about the prospect of finding a collaborative solution with the help of new Fish and Wildlife officials who are working with the task force. “These new Fish and Wildlife representatives seem to have a better appreciation of the challenges facing Inland Empire water and flood control agencies as we work to comply with new environmental restrictions,” Headrick said in the statement.

The Santa Ana Sucker, a very small and grayish fish, is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The sucker is endemic to only three river basins in Southern California, including the Santa Ana River in western Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties. According to The Press-Enterprise newspaper, the sucker fish currently lives in a three-mile segment of the Santa Ana River south of Highway 60 in Riverside.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups lauded Monday’s decision as a win for species protection. “These protections will help make sure this tiny fish has a future, but they’ll also protect all kinds of other wildlife that depends on these rivers for their survival,” stated Adam Lazar, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Monday’s ruling, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, reaffirms the sucker’s expanded critical habitat to include stretches of three Southern California rivers and their tributaries: the Santa Ana River in San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties; and the San Gabriel River and Big Tujunga Wash in Los Angeles County.

But Headrick told the Press-Enterprise newspaper that that the habitat expansion could affect several water project that are under way or planned, including a recycled water treatment facility for San Bernardino’s water department.

In August 2011, 12 water agencies in the Inland Empire sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the final rule of critical habitat for the sucker fish was based on flawed science and was made without input from local agencies as required by federal law.

Water managers in the Inland Empire have said the habitat designation could cause the loss of up to 125,800 acre-feet of local water supplies each year, an amount that represents about one-third of the water currently used by 1 million residents of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. They have also expressed concern over the impact that expanded sucker habitat would have on flood control, water conservation and groundwater recharge operations in their service areas.

In November, ACWA sent a letter to Daniel Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, requesting that the final rule for the Santa Ana Sucker’s expanded habitat designation be withdrawn until an impartial scientific review of the critical habitat’s necessity is undertaken.  In the letter ACWA advocated for a collaborative solution that would preserve the environment while continuing to meet the region’s water needs.