updated 10/4/2004 11:56:54 AM ET 2004-10-04T15:56:54

Federal biologists evaluating the effects of shifting millions of gallons of water to Southern California from rivers in the north were ordered by their superiors to revise a conclusion that the plan would hurt endangered salmon, a newspaper reported Saturday.

At issue is a state-federal plan for the network of reservoirs and aqueducts that moves water to Southern California.

Biologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration initially found that the water project would harm fish in many rivers in Northern California, including salmon in the American River. But NOAA administrators overruled the report’s findings and supervised a rewriting of the analysis, according to documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

Some agency employees who asked not to be identified said some of the changes had no basis in science and will substantially weaken protections for endangered winter-run salmon, steelhead and other fish.

NOAA officials say the revisions were justified. Agency biologists made some errors and “unsubstantiated conclusions” in their original draft, said James Lecky, an agency administrator in Long Beach who ordered the revisions.

The project would pump more water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave its blessing to the plan in August, but NOAA biologists reached a different conclusion. A draft report from NOAA said the plan “is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of Sacramento winter-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead,” as well as spring-run salmon.

An updated version, dated Sept. 27, no longer concludes that winter-run salmon or other fish could face extinction by the extra water diversions. The revised report also softens wording for how dam operators could avoid future impacts on fish and no longer calls for a minimum flow standard for the American River, as the original draft did.

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