Eric Burkett

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — In a second go-around in a case affecting California’s last major undammed river, a federal judge on Friday lifted an injunction which prevented Caltrans from completing road improvements on two highways which, at many points, run directly alongside the wild Smith River.

U.S. District Judge James Donato lifted the nearly decadelong injunction after finding Caltrans’ revised plans for improvements on U.S. Route 199 and State Route 197 did not violate the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Plaintiffs Friends of Del Norte, an environmental group based in the state northwesternmost county, sued Caltrans claiming plans for improving the highways posed a threat to the salmon which inhabit the 25-mile river.

The project had been intended to facilitate the movement of large trucks. But in 2014 the judge found "serious questions about the adequacy of the reviews and consultation process that Caltrans and National Marine Fisheries Service conducted under the Endangered Species Act.”

At the time, the court found “contradictions and critical gaps in reasoning” in the two agencies’ assessments of the project's effects, and even whether a formal consultation was required under the Endangered Species Act. Two species of endangered salmon, coho and Chinook, inhabit the river along with cutthroat and steelhead trout, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Rather than appealing, Caltrans launched a second round of consultations with the Fisheries Service, which resulted in a revised evaluation of the project’s potential effects.

The agencies considered “a broad array of potential impacts” on the species in the affected area, but determined the project wasn’t likely to adversely affect the salmons’ habitat or other local populations of fish. The plaintiffs had argued formal consultations were needed, but a 2017 biological assessment and a letter of concurrence from the Fisheries Service handily addressed those issues after the court raised them the first time.

This time around, Donato found the plaintiffs failed to back up their concerns with case law “and effectively ignore the relevant portions of the administrative record, which show that the agencies adequately examined these issues and explained their analyses.

“In Caltrans’ view, the Endangered Species Act issues have been put to rest and the project is ready to start,” Donato wrote in summary judgment for Caltrans.

Donato said the order resolves the case in full but gave the plaintiffs until March 9 to state whether “they believe more is left to litigate.”

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