The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Ninth Circuit) has ruled that a California dam’s “other purposes” do include species conservation, reversing a California district court’s summary judgment one year ago in favor of a contrary argument by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau).
In San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper v. Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District, the court of appeals found that under Public Law 774, the Bureau had discretion to release water from Twitchell Dam to avoid take of endangered Southern California steelhead trout. The court of appeals held the statute “expressly authorized Twitchell Dam to be operated for ‘other purposes’” beyond the law’s enumerated purposes.
At the center of the litigation was whether the protection of an endangered species of trout was among the dam’s purposes when it was created, and whether the Bureau was authorized by law to increase water flow. Under section 9 of the ESA, it is illegal to take or harm an endangered species, including by significantly modifying or degrading its habitat, or disrupting feeding or spawning patterns. Environmental groups sought an order to increase water flow from the dam, arguing that low water levels were interfering with the trout’s ability to migrate and spawn, resulting in an unlawful take of protected species.
In addition, the court held that Public Law 774 required the Bureau to operate the dam substantially in accordance with a Secretary of the Interior report. The district court came to a contrary conclusion, stating that Public Law 774 aimed to conserve water “by limiting releases from the dam,” and that increasing water flow would result in waste that “conflicts with the express water conservation purpose of Twitchell dam.” The court of appeals ruled that the statute required substantial compliance, not strict compliance, with the Secretary’s report, granting the Bureau discretion to alter water flow from Twitchell Dam and thus subjecting the dam’s operations to the provisions of the ESA.