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Tiny delta smelt wins a big legal victory against ag and urban interests

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A tiny endangered fish, the delta smelt (hypomesus transpacificus), "won" a huge legal victory yesterday in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 2-1 decision that reversed a key finding in an earlier ruling, the Court found that previous decisions that justified restrictions on water distribution in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were valid and not "arbitrary and capricious" as another federal court had determined in 2010.

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The opinion was written by Judge Jay S. Bybee, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, and represents a major win for those who support government protections for endangered species.

The Central Valley Project and the State Water Project supply water to agricultural and domestic consumers in central and southern California. The source of that water is the estuary at the confluence of the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. However, that water source is the lone habitat for the delta smelt, which had previously been determined to be endangered under the California Endangered Species Act.

The new decision is bound to cause consternation amongst the San Joaquin Valley's agricultural and conservative political interests, including Congressional House Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) who has repeatedly referred to environmentalists as caring "...more about protecting fish than putting Californians back to work."