California Water Wars Heat Up With Suits From State Contractors

April 29, 2020, 10:06 PM

Water contractors in California are suing the state over its new permit that authorizes water deliveries, the result of a conflict with the Trump administration’s policies.

The groups suing California supply water to nearly 75% of the state’s population, 4 million acres of farmland, and many hundreds of thousands acres of critical habitats.

The complaints, filed in Superior Court in Fresno County, have to do with California’s complex water delivery system, which is shared between federal authorities and the state.

State Water Contractors, which represent 27 public water suppliers that get their water from state facilities, sued Wednesday, saying new state water permits impose rules that exceed California’s protections for endangered species.

The rule limits water supplies based on inadequate justification, will increase costs by $22 million annually, and causes conflicts between state and federal water management, according to the complaint.

The permit “has left us with no other choice than to file litigation that could and should have been avoided,” State Water Contractors General Manager Jennifer Pierre said in a news release.

Shared Jurisdiction

More than two-thirds of the state’s precipitation falls in the north, and a complex series of levees, rivers, reservoirs, pumping stations, and other facilities divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to elsewhere in the state, including thirsty southern California.

The California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operate those facilities. In the past, they used to work together.

But in March, the state obtained an operations permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife because it no longer agreed with the Trump administration’s philosophy over endangered species.

California disagreed with new water use policies implemented by the Trump administration, saying the new guidelines weren’t backed by science and failed to ensure fish wouldn’t be hurt by operations such as the use of pumps to draw water out of rivers.

California Natural Resources Agency spokeswoman Lisa Lien-Mager said the state couldn’t comment on litigation but stands behind its permit and water management operations. Species protection is more important in light of federal opinions, she said.

“The state’s permit strikes a necessary balance by providing much-needed environmental protection while advancing smarter operations that support the water needs of California communities and agriculture,” Lien-Mager said in an email.

Claims Rules Aren’t Science-Based

The water contractors’ suit claims violations of the state Environmental Quality and Endangered Species acts.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to agencies serving 1 in 17 Americans, also sued over the state permit on Tuesday, on similar grounds.

“A lengthy legal battle will not produce a sound solution for the Delta ecosystem,” General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said in a statement. “We need a state permit that uses the best available science to address the environmental impact of operations and strikes a balance in providing water supply to California’s farms and cities.”

Suppliers that get their water from federal facilities also filed a lawsuit. Those suppliers include the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority, San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, Friant Water Authority, and several Sacramento River settlement contractors.

That complaint, which claims violations of the state Environmental Quality Act, said the new state permit could cause water delivery disruptions, and stall negotiations on agreements to restore habitat while protecting water resources.

All of the cases are seeking injunctions, and that the permit for state operations be set aside. Metropolitan also wants a judgment that the state breached contracts.

California has also sued the secretaries of Commerce and Interior, federal agencies in those departments, and their leadership over updated water management plans.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at edooley@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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