In South Yuba River Citizens League v. National Marine Fisheries Service (PDF), the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California found that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the Administrative Procedure Act in concluding that water diversion on the Yuba River would not jeopardize or adversely modify the critical habitat of the Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, and North American green sturgeon.

The court found that the NMFS biological opinion (BiOp) failed to provide a rational connection between the factual determination that the project would perpetuate unmitigated stressors and the conclusion that those stressors would not jeopardize the listed fish.  The court reiterated that an agency action can only “jeopardize” a species’ existence if that “agency action causes some deterioration in the species’ pre-action condition,” but that these effects can only be understood in the context of the current status of the species, the environmental baseline, and future cumulative effects. The court held that in order to determine that other stressors identified in the BiOp will not cause a decline in the identified viability factors for the species, “the BiOp must discuss (through some method) the magnitude of the stressors’ impact, the populations’ ability to tolerate this impact, and the reason why any decline will not reduce the overall likelihood of survival or recovery.”

The court also found that the BiOp failed to consider various other aspects of the problem, including hatcheries, the San Francisco Bay Delta, poaching, the species’ overall viability, and global warming. The court found that evidence in the administrative record suggested that each of the first four stressors is one that is likely to adversely affect the listed species and that failure to consider the effect of the stressor on the listed species rendered the BiOp’s no-jeopardy conclusion arbitrary and capricious. As to global warming, the court stated that it “cannot conclude that global warming’s potential impacts are so slight that NMFS could ignore them without discussion” and that while the BiOp discussed present impacts on water temperature, it did not address whether global warming will alter temperature or flow. Therefore, by failing to discuss global warming, NMFS failed to address an important part of the problem.

With respect to the BiOp’s critical habitat analysis, “the BiOp concluded that the project would not adversely modify critical habitat because the project’s net ‘impacts’ on habitat were at worst neutral when measured against conditions immediately preceding the BiOp.” The court concluded that this conclusion was arbitrary and capricious as the court could not discern the reason underlying the critical habitat analysis.