Critical habitat designated for Santa Ana River fish
A long battle to protect a Santa Ana River fish from extinction has apparently come to an end, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issuing a final designation of critical habitat along miles of the species' namesake river.
The areas deemed necessary for the recovery of the Santa Ana sucker total 9,331 acres in San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties, according to the decision issued Thursday.
Environmentalists who sued to set aside more land for the small algae-eating fish were pleased by the decision. But local officials said they fear it could hamper billions of dollars worth of critical water projects and transportation improvements. A critical habitat designation does not prohibit development, but it can restrict it.
"There are significant concerns that remain, especially with the areas of the Santa Ana River and Mill Creek that currently do not, nor do we believe ever did, sustain the Santa Ana sucker," said Doug Headrick, general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, which diverts water off the river to recharge groundwater serving the valley and parts of Riverside.
Most significant in the latest decision is elimination of 38 acres of critical habitat above the Seven Oaks Dam near Highland. That section was removed after numerous protests during the public comment period, said Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife.
Several habitat designations have been made for the sucker in the last decade, prompted by lawsuits by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. The latest round stems from a lawsuit over a large cut to the habitat and the lack of Santa Ana River property in a 2005 designation.
"We felt that was really flawed considering there's a good stretch of river where the suckers are persisting," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the center who disagrees that the fish didn't live above the dam at one point.
Santa Ana suckers are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They now exist primarily in a three-mile stretch of river south from Highway 60 in Riverside, but expanding protected areas better ensures survival, she said.
Included in the designation is the upper river from below the dam to Tippecanoe Avenue, along with parts of Mill Creek and City Creek; the main stem of the river from Tippecanoe Avenue to Prado Dam and Flood Control Basin near Corona, along with some portions of the Rialto Drain and Sunnyslope Creek in the Rubidoux Nature Center; and the lower portion of the river below Prado Dam.
Part of the designation includes land within the boundaries of the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.
The fish also live in the San Gabriel River and Big Tujunga Creek in Los Angeles County and some of their tributaries.
Final details will be available when the designation is published in the federal register on Dec. 14. Stacy Aldstadt, general manager of the San Bernardino Municipal Water Department, said the area of the river where her agency discharges about 40 million gallons per day of effluent from its Rapid Infiltration and Extraction plant, known as RIX, near Colton, is included as critical habitat.
That jeopardizes a district plan to recycle water upstream and use it to recharge aquifers, instead of treating and discharging it from RIX. The habitat designation mandates that the district consult with Fish and Wildlife on the project and address concerns about the reduced flow, even though it is artificially created by the treatment plant and didn't exist before 1996, she said.
"They will have to do a biological opinion. That will cost money and it will take time. We would have to leave water in the river for the fish and its habitat," Aldstadt said.
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