Delta News

Groups sue to block south state water district’s purchase of Delta islands

Just days after a powerful Southern California water agency announced it was spending $175 million to buy five islands in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a coalition of opponents has sued to demand environmental review of the purchase.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in San Joaquin Superior Court by San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties, the Central Delta and Contra Costa water agencies, and two environmental groups. It alleges the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California improperly exempted itself from the state environmental review process while the purchase agreement was being hashed out.

Escrow on the sale is expected to close in early June. The lawsuit asks that the purchase be put on hold until a thorough environmental review has been conducted.

Metropolitan’s attorney, responding to questions about the suit, said Thursday it would make no sense to do an environmental review before the agency has a firm proposal for how it wants to use the islands.

“We are simply buying property,” said Catherine Stites, Metropolitan’s senior deputy general counsel. “We’ve identified a number of potential future uses, but we have not identified any particular use or change in the use of the property yet. Our board has not given us authority to do anything with the property except buy it.

“If and when we decide on a particular use, further environmental analysis will be done as required. It would be speculative to do CEQA (a state environmental review) now.”

Metropolitan officials have said they might want to use at least one of the islands to store dirt and construction equipment for California WaterFix, Gov. Jerry Brown’s $15.5 billion plan to re-engineer the Delta’s plumbing system by building a pair of underground tunnels. Metropolitan is a leading proponent of the tunnels, which are designed to improve the flow of water to the south state.

Metropolitan also has said it could use the islands as part of ongoing efforts to restore Delta habitat, on the theory that anything that helps the Delta’s imperiled ecosystem would improve the estuary’s fishery and enable more reliable water shipments. As it is, fish problems and other environmental woes regularly force the state and federal pumping stations that divert Sacramento Valley water to the south state to slow or halt operations.

San Joaquin County Counsel Mark Myles argued Thursday that the Southern California water wholesaler needed to go through an environmental review to make the purchase, given the variety of potential uses Metropolitan officials have said the islands might facilitate.

Said Myles, “We think it’s disingenuous on one hand to say, ‘There’s absolutely no environmental impact from this,’ and at the same say, ‘We can use it to facilitate the tunnels. We can use it to stage equipment for the tunnels. We can use it to spread the muck from the tunnels. We can turn it into tidal wetlands.’ 

The tracts of land included in the purchase include Bouldin and Bacon islands, Webb Tract, most of Holland Tract and a slice of Chipps Island. In total, they cover 20,000 acres in San Joaquin, Contra Costa and Solano counties.

Many Delta residents view the sale with suspicion. They blame Metropolitan and its water purchases for the estuary’s environmental decline, including the alarming drop in fish populations. Some invoke the notorious 1913 episode when the city of Los Angeles co-opted Owens Valley’s water rights.

“The political leaders, residents and landowners of the Delta ... hereby declare that we will not be the next Owens Valley,” Brett Jolley, representing the plaintiffs, wrote in a letter to Metropolitan.

The islands haven’t actually been under local control for two decades. Instead, they’re owned by Delta Wetlands Properties, a company controlled by Swiss financial services conglomerate Zurich Insurance Group.

Zurich bought Delta Wetlands 20 years ago with the notion of converting the islands, some of which sit below sea level, into giant reservoirs that would store water in wet years and ship it to Southern California when supplies there ran low. The plan fizzled amid opposition, and the properties have remained agricultural.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow.

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