Water ruling: What's keeping the water from flowing

FRESNO, Calif.

Judge Oliver Wanger ruled in favor of farmers. He says federal agencies didn't comply with the law in putting salmon on the protected species list. But he wasn't ready to make a final decision on how much added water they could get.

Leaving the federal courthouse entrance Wednesday -- Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham remained confident after two hours of deliberations. Birmingham represents a group of farmers and water contractors who filed the injunction. "Every day in which we are losing water has the potential to adversely affect agricultural expectations on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley."

As it stands now, federal agencies are putting tight restrictions on how much water can be pumped out to farmers. The injunction would allow access to more water -- which farmers say will help them grow more crops. Action News obtained a copy of Wednesday's ruling.

In it, Judge Wanger said, "Until defendant agencies have complied with the law, some injunctive relief pending NEPA compliance is appropriate, so long as it will not further jeopardize the species or their habitat."

What that means is the farmers wouldn't be restricted by government guidelines anymore. The injunction would only be voided if federal agencies can prove without a doubt that salmon would be in direct danger because of the extra pumping.

Lawyers representing the federal agencies were not present inside the courtroom, but appeared via telephone. Environmental groups and fisherman claim the injunction would threaten spring-run salmon in the Valley.

Earthjustice Attorney, Erin Tobin said, "There are salmon and steelhead migration through the delta right now -- will be affected by any change in the amount of pumping going on. There's less water for the fish and it will affect them."

"We expect to be able to demonstrate that entering an injunction will not create any potential risk for the species that are protected by the biological opinions," said Birmingham.

The legal debate heats up with the decision on water expected next Tuesday.

An interesting thing to note is that the pumping season ends June 15th. If Judge Wanger upholds the injunction -- it would leave only 20 days of extra pumping. Both sides say it's an important three weeks to their respective industries.

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