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Lawsuit Aims to Protect Northern California Salmon Habitat

Colin Sullivan, Greenwire PM DC Februarary 4, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — Environmental and fishing groups sued California today for allegedly ignoring laws aimed at guaranteeing clean water along the North Coast for endangered chinook salmon, coho salmon and steelhead trout.

The groups — led by the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations — filed suit in state Superior Court, saying state officials had failed to craft plans that protect water quality and provide habitat for the fish.

“Without such plans, water quality in North Coast rivers and streams will not meet the standards that the state is obligated to achieve,” Earthjustice attorney George Torgun said.

The suit challenges the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s application of the federal Clean Water Act’s Total Maximum Daily Load program related to removal of sediment in spawning streams and rivers. The groups say the TMDL program “has suffered from a history of inaction.”

Declining river conditions in the region, caused largely by development around the waterways, have resulted in fishing restrictions over the last few years, to include a complete shutdown of the salmon fishing season last year. The groups say the state board has failed to deal with its part of the problem — namely, debris discharge.

The agency, the suit charges, has not maintained a list of rivers and streams that do not meet the water quality standards. Nor has it set pollution limits for these sources, the groups claim.

A North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board spokesman refused to comment on the lawsuit, but he did cite the agency’s “sediment TMDL implementation policy,” which was passed in 2004. He said the board is working under this program to clean the rivers and streams and to ensure cold water for the fish.

The filing of the complaint comes as water officials statewide are bracing for possible mandated water rationing to cope with a persistent drought. In the same Northern California region yesterday, officials at the Sonoma County Water Agency said they will curtail water deliveries in the coming weeks (E&ENews PM, Feb. 3).