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Environment & Science

Appeals panel halts long-term Delta water contracts in dispute over smelt, other fish

The Delta smelt is around 2 inches long.
The Delta smelt is around 2 inches long.
California Dept. of Water Resources

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A federal appeals court has put on hold more than 40 long-term contracts to send water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to farms and small water agencies.

Environmentalists welcomed the decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, though it doesn't change anything in this drought year. The ruling stems from a dispute involving the delta smelt, a fish the length of your finger.

About six years ago, federal biologists concluded that taking water away from the Delta for irrigation would jeopardize that fish and others. Environmental groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, arguing that finding should have been a factor in how the agency determined the amount of water it sends to farms and water districts. 

Eleven 9th Circuit judges--liberal, moderate, and conservative--signed the decision. They ruled federal water managers should have consulted biologists about the health of the smelt - and they noted that the Bureau of Reclamation could have curbed how much water the long-term contract holders got, or modified the contracts to protect the smelt, after the biological opinion was rendered.

The case now returns to a lower federal court where a judge will hear it on the merits.