Tag Archives: Central


Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, near Willows, CA. Photo by Dan Cox, USFWS

 “A federal judge leaving the bench to quickly turn up as the lawyer for an entity that has come before him numerous times over the years raises eyebrows.”

Former U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger, who spent two decades as a jurist deep in the Central Valley, is shaping up as something of a courtroom nemesis for environmentalists. And he’s not even on the bench.

Wanger, who has ruled on numerous water cases, retired at the end of September – but not before he blasted the government’s environmental assessments of flows and fresh water in a case involving Delta smelt protections. Wanger’s sharp language, in which he denounced experts from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service, drew national attention.

The Westlands Water District, the nation’s premier farm irrigation district and a major political player in the Central Valley, sought more flows south from the Delta; the government’s position would have limited them. In the end, Wanger’s decision was favorable to Westlands.

And that would have been that, except that Wanger has now surfaced less than two months after his earlier decision as an attorney in a state case representing – you guessed it — Westlands.

Wanger was listed in a routine court filing on Nov. 22 in Fresno County Superior Court as an attorney representing Westlands in a state case against pitting the district against environmental groups and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. Wanger and representatives of his law firm were identified as the new lawyers representing Westlands, replacing the district’s own staff attorneys. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is also a defendant.

There is nothing illegal or improper about Wanger entering private practice. But the perception of a federal judge leaving the bench to quickly turn up as the lawyer for an entity that has come before him numerous times over the years raises eyebrows.

As for the outspoken Wanger, he went to public events just after stepping down, including a fundraiser, and he appears to be unconcerned about the latest flap over his new role as Westlands lawyer.

“I would love to hear what Westlands would say if we had hired [Wanger],” Zeke Grader, executive director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, told the Fresno Bee’s John Ellis. That would be fine with him, Wanger said.

“I’d love to work for them,” he said, including environmental groups and the federal government in his list of prospective clients.

In September, shortly before he retired, Wanger said FWS scientist Jennifer Norris “has not been honest this court. I find her to be incredible as a witness. I find her testimony to be that of a zealot. And I’m not overstating the case. I’m not being histrionic. I’m not being dramatic. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I’ve seen a few witnesses testify.”

He also said the Bureau of Reclamation’s Frederick Feyrer, he showed “absolute incredibility” and “absolute unreliability,” and “finally, the most significant finding, the court finds him to be untrustworthy as a witness.”  His language – it was part of a lengthy diatribe – surprised legal observers for its intensity. The Department of the Interior, meanwhile, is investigating the judge’s allegations.

Norris and Feyrer did not comment on Wanger’s statements, but at the time Interior Department through a spokesman defended the scientists’ work, calling it “consistent and thorough.”

The underlying issue of the case was the government’s plan to tap the Sacramento River to retain some fresh water supplies in the Delta, rather than let it be shipped south, a move that by some estimates could cut water to San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts by some 300,000 acre-feet, perhaps more. Wanger blocked the move, at least temporarily.

The Delta, an estuary fed by several rivers, is at the heart of California’s water system and provides about half the state’s drinking water.


Fish tale

LIberty Island, USFWS Photo by Heather Webb

“It’s the latest in a series of decisions by Wanger, who handles a remarkable load of major water cases and whose decisions send ripples – no pun intended here – through the water communities.”

 …. The Fresno jurist who is playing a key role in the legal fights over California water has issued a complex ruling that is all but certain to  force federal scientists to go back to the drawing board and rewrite – for the second time in three years – a biological opinion targeting protections for the Chinook salmon and steelhead as they travel through the Delta. U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger said there wasn’t enough evidence to back up the scientists’ conclusion in their 844-page opinion. It’s the latest in a series of decisions by Wanger, who handles a remarkable load of major water cases and whose decisions send ripples – no pun intended here – through the water communities. A detailed account by John Ellis in the Fresno Bee notes that Wanger’s decision was a mixed bag and interests on various sides of the issue found something to like. BOTTOM LINE: Wanger announced two weeks ago he was retiring from the bench, citing family and financial obligations. Whether he’s praised admiringly or burned in effigy, depending on his decision du jour, his departure represents a profound loss of judicial expertise in the state’s most complex, exasperating and high-stakes policy arena. Observers say Wanger has ruled on and heard more water cases than any other living judge, and that kind of savvy is hard to replace.

 ….  An interesting lineup today at the afternoon workshop in Sacramento of the State Water Resources Control Board: The water regulators vs. Caltrans. There’s some history here: The State Water Board is crafting a tentative order that among other things would tighten stormwater runoff rules for Caltrans’ projects. The proposed rule would make the California restrictions tougher than the federal guidelines – one of aspect of the proposed regulation that doesn’t please Caltrans — or its contractors, for that matter. Caltrans was the subject of enforcement actions and lawsuits throughout the 1990s because of the large amount of stormwater runoff from its roads. This runoff can bring heavy metals, oil and other pollutants into streams, rivers, and lakes. In March, Caltrans’ top environmental engineer sent a detailed critique of the proposed regulation to the State Water Board and staffers in both agencies have spent a lot of time examining the issue. BOTTOM LINE:  A draft rewrite of the original rule has been prepared and it is likely more changes are on the way, including provisions addressing Caltrans’ concerns ….

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