Two wildlife advocacy groups Wednesday announced their intent to sue the Riverside County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, as well as other regional and federal government agencies, for allegedly putting a fish species’ habitat at risk with the release of water from the Seven Oaks Dam, which the defendants say was necessary to reduce potential public safety hazards.
According to the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, the outflows that started on May 11 and continued for several days resulted in high sediment levels that disrupted the spawning activity of Santa Ana sucker fish, which populate the Santa Ana River, coursing through Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
CBD officials allege foraging grounds were overwhelmed with muck and debris, damaging the sucker’s food supply and smothering fishes’ eggs.
The water remained turbid for three months after the dam release, officials said.
“This irresponsible action pushed these iconic Southern California fish closer to extinction,” said Ileene Anderson, a scientist at the center. “These agencies must be held accountable for violating the law and ignoring warnings from federal wildlife officials. It’s sad and frustrating to see this happen when so much time and effort have been spent trying to save this wonderful species.”
Along with the Riverside County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, the Orange County Public Works Department, San Bernardino County Department of Public Works and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were named in the pending legal action.
Riverside County officials referred inquiries about the legal action to their counterparts in San Bernardino County. That county’s public affairs chief, David Wert, told City News Service the water releases were “essential for public safety.”
“The flow rate is part of the standard operating procedures for the dam developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the `Water Control Plan,’ which has requirements for the water level behind the dam to be at (particular) elevations during certain periods of the year,” Wert said. “This year might have marked the first time in dam history that the water level behind the dam was that high in May. Nonetheless, there is vital safety inspection and maintenance work required on the dam that can’t be performed until the water level is below a certain level.”
Dan Silver with the Endangered Habitats League, which is partnering with the CBC in the upcoming lawsuit, said management of the dam “can successfully combine flood control with preserving wildlife values and the citizens’ natural heritage.” He said releases should not be done during the Santa Ana sucker fish’s spawning season.
The Seven Oaks Dam is near the headwater to the Santa Ana River, roughly eight miles northeast of Redlands. The mid-May controlled water dumps involved 700 cubic feet per second flows downstream, according to the CBD. The organization said the release would have been mitigated had it immediately followed a storm, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recommended that local authorities wait until a change in the weather, but the advice was ignored.
The sucker is on the federal Endangered Species List, and it has been a source of conflict for decades, with regional water agencies filing civil actions in an attempt to reduce regulations that prevent access to fresh water stocks in order to preserve fish spawning areas.
In 2015, the agencies petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing, but it was denied.
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