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VISALIA, CA -- Retired U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who made most of the water rulings that protecting the infamous Delta smelt at the expense of California farmers, entertained the crowd at the annual meeting of California Citrus Mutual, held here Nov. 3, with his colorful review of the water cases.

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Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, with retired U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who presided over many of the water rulings in California and who was the featured speaker at Mutual's 34th annual meeting, held Nov. 3 in Visalia, CA. (Photo by Tim Linden)

Judge Wanger, who hails from Fresno, CA, has been one of only two judges serving the Eastern District of California, which includes most of the San Joaquin Valley. As such, he has been involved in many cases dealing with agriculture over the years.

In fact, CCM President Joel Nelsen remarked that his first interaction with Judge Wanger was over a case involving the importation of Argentinean citrus in the early 1990s. Mr. Nelsen quipped that his side won the first case, but lost a later case on the same issue.

That experience probably defines Judge Wanger as well as anything. He has been noted for his tough but fair decisions over the years.

Judge Wanger explained to the CCM audience that a judge cannot be guided by feelings or emotions but rather by the law. For years, he has been the judge of record dealing with water issues in California. He said that there are very complex issue involving water rights, environmental concerns, the needs of farmers and other developers, and, of course, the Endangered Species Act.

Judge Wanger said that when Congress passed the ESA many decades ago, it gave the species list priority over all other factors. If there is a situation where a listed endangered species is threatened, a judge has no option but to side with the animal, he said.

That law guided many of Judge Wanger’s decisions with regard to the Delta smelt, a two-inch long fish that resides in the California Delta. Over the years, millions of acre feet of water have had to be flushed through the Delta and out to sea to help protect this endangered species.

Recently, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case brought by some California farmers appealing a Judge Wanger ruling regarding the Delta smelt. Before he spoke to the crowd, Judge Wanger told The Produce News that he was not surprised that the Supreme Court essentially upheld his ruling by refusing to hear the case.

“It had to do with the commerce clause,” he said. “Many different courts have upheld that same type of ruling [regarding the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution]. It is fairly simple -- other fish eat the Delta smelt and then they are caught and sold and involved in interstate commerce, so that clause can be used with regard to the Endangered Species Act.”

The California farm group appealing the case argued that the Delta smelt itself had no commercial value and its movement was confined to one single state, so the commerce clause could not be used to uphold the ESA. That argument did not persuade the Supreme Court, which has not taken a commerce clause case since John Roberts has been the Chief Justice.

Judge Wanger told the close to 300 citrus industry representatives in the audience that if they have concerns with his decisions, their beef is with their state and federal legislators. He said that neither Congress nor the California Legislature has done an adequate job providing California with the water it needs for both agriculture and its population.

He also took a swipe at some of the larger agricultural concerns in the state that played a vital role in the demise of the Peripheral Canal concept a generation ago. The judge indicated that the building of that canal in the 1970s could have helped agriculture solve its water needs today.

The annual meeting was Mutual’s 34th and, according to CCM Chairman Tom Wollenman, general manager of LoBue Bros. Inc. Lindsay, CA, it was the most well attended event in the association’s history.

Mr. Wollenman also said that CCM has its highest membership ever and is moving aggressively forward on several different fronts including pest management, water and labor. He called CCM “the most highly regarded trade association in California” and praised Mr. Nelsen, who has been the top staff person at CCM for 29 years, for his service.