Fish helped by federal ruling, but higher waters bills a concern

CALIFORNIA — Endangered salmon and steelhead in Central Valley rivers must have access again to historic spawning grounds above major California dams, according to sweeping new federal rules that could boost water bills for millions statewide.

The National Marine Fisheries Service unveiled the complex set of rules, called a biological opinion, Thursday in response to a lawsuit by environmental groups. Affected species are winter- and spring-run salmon, Central Valley steelhead and green sturgeon.

The rules require the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to restore access for fish to waters above Nimbus and Folsom dams on the American River, Shasta Dam on the Sacramento, and New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus.

Those dams were built decades ago without fish ladders and have blocked access to hundreds of miles of historic spawning grounds.

So dire is the situation that experts have concluded the rules are also necessary to save an endangered population of killer whales that range from British Columbia to California and primarily eat salmon. If California's salmon disappear, killer whales could be next.

"They've addressed the big issues," said Kate Poole, attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There's no question any more about the fact that the Bay-Delta ecosystem is in dire need of significant changes and fixes. This is one big step to do that."

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