Delta News

Sacramento County sues to block Delta tunnels – and it’s not alone

Sacramento County led a cascade of area governments suing the state in an effort to block the Delta tunnels, saying the $17 billion project would harm local farmers, endangered fish and low-income communities at the south end of the county.

The lawsuits come as the tunnels project, championed by Gov. Jerry Brown as a means of improving south state water supplies, makes headway with environmental regulators. In July, the state announced that the massive project complies with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, and wouldn’t hurt fish, wildlife or human health in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Elected officials in the Sacramento area long have opposed the project and have formed an alliance, called the Delta Counties Coalition, dedicated to fighting the tunnels. Sacramento County filed its lawsuit Thursday, as did the Placer County Water Agency, the cities of Stockton and Antioch and a consortium of commercial fishermen’s groups. Additional lawsuits were expected to be filed by Monday, the legal deadline for attacking the tunnels project with a CEQA suit.

“There are many more coming,” said Matthew Emrick, attorney for the city of Antioch.

Sacramento’s suit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court, say the state Department of Water Resources is ignoring the environmental harm the tunnels will create in the Delta, in violation of CEQA. The county’s lawyers argued that “almost 700 acres of county farmland will be rendered unusable” during the 13-year construction period, and once the project is operational it will degrade the quality of the water flowing through the Delta by diverting portions of the Sacramento River’s clean water flows through the tunnels.

Sacramento’s case is aimed at “really protecting Sacramento’s access to water and the Delta way of life,” said Robyn Truitt Drivon, the county counsel.

The suits were hardly a surprise; state officials said last month they expected litigation to come rolling in. CEQA can be a powerful tool for slowing or even halting a big development project. Legal experts say it’s likely the CEQA suits will get consolidated, but that process alone could take months.

“I think the initial effort will be to get all of the various lawsuits that are filed before one judge, so you don’t have multiple judges addressing similar issues,” said Barton “Buzz” Thompson, Jr., a Stanford University water law expert.

Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Water Resources, declined comment on the suits.

The first round of lawsuits came in June, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service said the tunnels, known as California WaterFix, wouldn’t jeopardize the continued existence of such endangered species as the smelt and Chinook salmon. Days later, the federal agencies were sued by the Golden Gate Salmon Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and The Bay Institute. The suit says the agencies’ declaration violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, Butte County officials announced last week that they will file their own suit against the state over the tunnels.

Supervisor Bill Connelly said locals are fearful of losing their water rights to Southern California. He said Butte officials also believe Lake Oroville – the state’s second-largest water-supply reservoir and a popular Butte County recreation hub – would be sucked dry each year to feed the tunnels.

“Overall, it’s just the arrogance of the rest of the state in not considering the people that supply their water, and our needs,” Connelly said.

The tunnels project would divert a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow into a pair of underground tunnels, delivering the water directly to the massive federal and state pumping stations in the south Delta. By doing so, Brown’s administration argues, the project would overhaul the way water flows through the Delta and reduce harm to fish.

In particular, the tunnels largely would remedy the damaging “reverse flow” phenomenon that occurs when the pumps are operating. Often the pumps have to be shut off to keep fish from peril. That would enable the state and federal governments to keep the pumps running more reliably.

Environmentalists and others reject the argument that the tunnels will protect salmon and other fish. “The project sacrifices rather than saves the Delta’s fish and wildlife,” according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by a group of commercial fishermen’s associations.

The pumps supply water to Southern California, parts of the Bay Area and farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

The suits are gushing in as the south-of-Delta water agencies deliberate on whether they want to pay for the project.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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