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How will expanded habitat for sucker fish impact Inland Empire residents?

Aside from dramatically delaying and increasing the costs of water projects, which drive up water rates, critical habitat designations can make maintenance and improvement projects cost prohibitive.

Six years ago, record rainfall turned normally placid Lytle Creek into a raging torrent that severely damaged the settling basins that West Valley Water District uses to capture stormwater runoff so that it can be used to recharge local groundwater basins.

West Valley and the Lytle Creek Water Conservation Association hired consultants to put together a plan to rebuild the settling basins, but because the area surrounding the ponds had recently been declared a critical habitat area for the San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat, the water agencies would have to obtain a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before renovation work could proceed.

The water agencies subsequently determined that the costs of conducting environmental studies and purchasing additional habitat land to “mitigate” any impacts on the Kangaroo Rat would be so high that they had no choice but to abandon the project, even though it was needed to recharge groundwater supplies for water agencies serving the cities of Rialto, Fontana, Grand Terrace, San Bernardino and other communities.

“The preliminary estimate from the consultants was that it was going to be cost prohibitive to rebuild the recharge ponds, so we never did it,” said Tom Crowley, assistant general manager of West Valley Water District. “The net result, of course, is that we’ve lost a key part of our groundwater water recharge infrastructure because of the critical habitat designation.”

“Now, imagine what would happen if you applied the same kinds of environmental restrictions over every pipeline, treatment plant and groundwater recharge pond along the Santa Ana River and its tributaries between the Seven Oaks Dam and Riverside and you begin to understand what the Fish and Wildlife Service has done by expanding the critical habitat area for the Santa Ana Sucker.”

Of course, critical habitat designations don’t stop every water project from being implemented. Many do go forward, but not without considerable delays and increases in costs, Crowley said.

Just last year, West Valley Water District partnered with Fontana Water Company and San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District to replace a relatively small section of leaking and deteriorating pipeline in the city of Rialto near the Lytle Creek Wash.

It only took two months for construction crews to replace the pipeline. But it took water agencies two and a half years to secure the permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service to do the project, Crowley said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also required the water agencies to purchase two acres of “mitigation land” for the San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat at a cost of nearly $300,000.

“Three hundred thousand dollars is a lot to pay when you consider that this was only a $1.5 million project. That’s a 20 percent increase in costs,” Crowley said.

Moreover, because of the expanded critical habitat area for the Santa Ana Sucker, water agencies throughout the Inland Empire now have to obtain permits from the Fish and Wildlife Service to perform even routine maintenance on their pipelines and other water facilities.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service’ permitting process not only requires time, but, in some cases, makes it financially infeasible to maintain our existing infrastructure, let alone build new projects that could help us reduce our water imports from Northern California,” said Douglas Headrick, general manager of San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District.

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