A state appellate court has temporarily blocked the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s $175 million purchase of five islands in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
On Tuesday, the 3rd District Court of Appeal granted a temporary stay preventing the sale from closing.
Last month, a San Joaquin County judge refused to grant a request for a preliminary injunction filed by environmental groups, local water districts, and San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties. Those groups sued in April, aiming to halt the sale pending an environmental review. Metropolitan officials have said it makes no sense to do an environmental review before the agency has a firm proposal for how it wants to use the islands.
Metropolitan has suggested the properties could be used to store equipment or possibly “fill” dirt for Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial tunnels project, which is designed to improve the reliability of water shipments to areas south of the Delta. The project is wildly unpopular among environmentalists and elected officials in the Delta region, and they have taken aim at Metropolitan’s pending land purchase as well. They contend the purchase ultimately will harm the Delta’s ecosystem and water supply, so an environmental review is required.
“We are grateful that the justices have prevented Metropolitan from closing on this unprecedented purchase of five Delta islands while they consider whether to extend the injunction for the duration of the litigation,” San Joaquin County Counsel J. Mark Myles said in an email.
Metropolitan attorney Catherine Stites said the appellate court’s decision is merely a procedural ruling to give the court time to review the case. Stites said that when the appeal was filed Thursday, it included nearly 1,000 pages of documents, and Metropolitan submitted a stack of documents in response.
“We believe the 3rd Appellate District will come to the same conclusion (as the San Joaquin County court judge), when it has a chance to review all the papers carefully,” she said.
In a one-paragraph order issued Tuesday, the appellate court enjoined Metropolitan from moving forward with the purchase pending further instructions from the court. The court gave no explanation for its ruling.
Dante Nomellini, a lawyer for the Central Delta Water Agency and a plaintiff in the case, said the ruling doesn’t mean an end to Metropolitan’s purchase, but that the court could force the Southern California agency to perform environmental reviews before it can complete the acquisition.
Until now, Metropolitan has suggested it wants the islands to help push the Delta tunnels project forward but hasn’t made that explicit. It also has said the islands could be used for wetlands restoration and other purposes.
“We all know they want to get the property … for facilitating the WaterFix,” Nomellini said, using the official name for the tunnels project. “Why would Met come up here and buy land unless it related to their water supply?”
A second suit was filed late last month by San Joaquin County and a group of Delta farmers who allege that the pending sale represents a breach of contract.
Delta Wetlands Properties, a subsidiary of Swiss financial services conglomerate Zurich Insurance Group, bought the islands 20 years ago with the aim of converting them into giant reservoirs that could store water in wet years and ship it to Southern California when supplies run low. Local governments and landowners sued over the plan. In 2013, they negotiated a series of settlements that restrict what can be done with the land.
The lawsuit filed in Contra Costa Superior Court argues that Delta Wetlands signed a contract that requires future buyers to abide by the negotiated settlements.
Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir said last week that “those agreements are not relevant to the purchase of the property.” Metropolitan officials say they won’t be using the islands as reservoirs.