Agriculture

New suit attempts to squash late-calendar water transfers to Valley during drought

Environmental advocates and a pair of Delta-centric water agencies launched a suit seeking to halt water transfers to San Joaquin Valley water users occurring in the late fall.

It’s the latest in a half-decade of litigation aimed at stopping all water transfers – a key drought-era tool for parched Valley water users – from water users awash with supplies north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The suit, which demands a Merced County judge halt a two-month extended window of water transfers into the San Joaquin Valley by water users within San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority (SLDMWA), argues that the water agency failed to comply with California’s marquee environmental law – the California Environmental Quality Act.

It was filed by environmental groups Aqualliance, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Water Impact Network, the Central Delta Water Agency, and South Delta Water Agency.

The genesis of the litigation dates back to 2015 when SLDMWA and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation formed a 10-year long-term water transfer agreement to aid in the movement of water from north to south via Federal and state-operated infrastructure during critically dry years.

The initial agreement set the window that water users could send supplies south from July to September during such years.

Four years later, following legal challenges by the same environmental advocates, the agencies issued a new agreement – with fresh environmental review – and included an extended window to transfer water that stretched to November.

The 2019 water transfer agreement coincided with much-touted environmental rules issued by the Trump administration governing the pumping of water from the Delta, boosting supplies for Valley water users.

The move to extend the amount of time Valley water users had to access transferred water came in pursuit of assisting key environmental efforts within the Federally-operated Central Valley Project.

As California’s drought worsened throughout this year, SLDMWA water users agreed to hold transferred water supplies within Shasta Dam to aid in Federal temperature management efforts to preserve salmon populations along the Sacramento River.

In total, an estimated 140,000 acre-feet of water purchased by Valley-based water users from senior water rights holders situated on the Sacramento River was stored in Shasta Dam, buttressing perilously low supplies.

While some water would be transferred during the traditional window to supplement the cold water pool required for environmental operations to sustain fish populations.

Now, after assisting in environmental operations for which the rightful users had little direct benefit, they face litigation over attempting to move their water outside of the prescribed time period.

Environmental advocates and the two Delta water agencies argue in the suit that the transfer of water outside of the summer months is more harmful to fish populations than the original three-month window prescribed in 2015, which they also opposed.

They also argued that holding back supplies in Shasta Dam and assisting Federal authorities in preserving salmon populations was an attempt at “engaging in impermissible piecemealed [environmental] review of” the water transfer agreement and that “[transferring] water late in the season will only impair carry-over storage going into another possibly dry year.”

Read the Suit

Photo: Columbia University

Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.