Water Wars: Six Lawsuits Filed Against Delta Stewardship Council

Groups from all sides of California water wars filed at least six lawsuits by today’s deadline to challenge a state agency’s plan for protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while at the same time improving the reliability of water diversions.

The lawsuits against the Delta Stewardship Council were filed in San Francisco and Sacramento Superior courts.

Several were filed by conservation and fishing groups that claim the council’s environmental impact report on its Delta Plan failed to consider adequately the effects of water transfers on farming, fishing, endangered species and water quality in the delta area.

Among other arguments, the groups contend the report violates state environmental law by failing to address the impact of two 35-mile water diversion tunnels proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, while laying the groundwork for the $24 billion project.

“This is the opening salvo in what will be an epic legal battle over California’s water future,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Stockton-based Restore the Delta.

“This lawsuit challenges the foundation that is being laid to build the water export tunnels. Without the Delta Plan in place, the tunnels cannot win approval for the needed permits,” she said.

The group is one of six plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Friday. Others in that lawsuit include the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the River and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

Sportfishing alliance executive director Bill Jennings said, “California is in a water crisis and the biological tapestry of the delta is hemorrhaging.

“The plan and EIR are little more than a ratification of an unsustainable status quo,” he alleged.

Today was the deadline for lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act to challenge the environmental impact report approved by the council on May 16. The various suits contest both the EIR and the Delta Plan and ask the courts to set aside both.

On another side of the issues, the cases include two lawsuits filed in Sacramento Superior Court by water agencies that claim the council exceeded its authority by planning to reduce water deliveries and didn’t adequately study the impacts of doing so.

Those cases were filed by the Fresno-based Westlands Water District on May 24 and by State Water Contractors on Friday.

Mike Jackson, a lawyer for Restore the Delta and other groups, said he expected the six lawsuits to be coordinated in one superior court. Resolving the suits and possible appeals could take three to five years, he estimated.

“A case of this magnitude is a multi-year process,” he said.

The Delta Stewardship Council responded to the lawsuits in a statement saying, “Our intent is to fully defend the Delta Plan.”

“We’re disappointed that that so many have turned to the courts,” council executive officer Chris Knopp said in the statement.

“Environmental groups want us to be more restrictive; water agencies believe we’re too restrictive. The plan, however, actually walks the very careful line specified in the Delta Reform Act,” Knopp said.

The reform act enacted by the Legislature in 2009 created the seven-member council with the “co-equal goals” of protecting and restoring the Delta ecosystem while providing a more reliable water supply for the state.

The council’s plan includes 14 regulations that will become legally enforceable when approved by the state Office of Administrative Law, a step expected by Oct. 1, unless blocked by a court order in one or more of the lawsuits. The plan also has 73 nonbinding policy recommendations.

The Delta Plan is separate from the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a 50-year project being developed by a consortium of state and federal agencies including the California Natural Resources Agency.

The BDCP encompasses the state’s proposal for the two underground tunnels and pumping stations to divert water from the delta for agricultural and urban water districts in Central and Southern California.

Preliminary drafts have been released and another draft, along with state and federal environmental studies, is due on Oct. 1.

Several of the environmental lawsuits challenging the Delta Plan EIR say the council avoided studying the tunnels on the ground that they will be analyzed separately in connection with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The lawsuits claim, however, that enough information has been released to allow an analysis of the proposed tunnels and that the state environmental law requires a comprehensive evaluation.

“This failure to analyze a reasonably foreseeable project that is in fact a vital component of the Delta Plan violates CEQA,” the Restore the Delta lawsuit claims.

Other lawsuits with an environmental perspective include one filed in Sacramento Friday by the North Coast Rivers Alliance, Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association and Winnemem Wintu Tribe.

Two additional lawsuits were filed in San Francisco Superior Court today by the Save the California Delta Alliance and by water agencies serving delta-area farmers and landowners who fear that diversions will increase the salinity of their water.

In addition claiming a CEQA violation, some of the environmental lawsuits allege the Delta Plan and EIR violate provisions of the Delta Reform Act and the public trust doctrine protecting Californians’ right to fish, swim and use boats in navigable waters.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!