In a decision that could delay or complicate Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two huge tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a Superior Court judge ruled Friday that a comprehensive management plan for the estuary is no longer valid.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael P. Kenny ruled that the entire Delta Plan must be “set aside” until deficiencies he noted in an earlier ruling are fixed. State officials say they plan to appeal.
The ruling is significant for a couple of key reasons. For one, in order for the Brown administration to build the tunnels, state officials will have to prove that the project complies with the recommendations laid out in the Delta Plan for managing land use and water exports in the fragile estuary. With the plan in flux and an appeals process underway, the already lengthy approval process for the tunnels could face significant delays.
The ruling also could hinder habitat restoration work and development protections that the plan calls for to shore up the Delta’s declining ecosystem, said Keith Coolidge, a spokesman for the Delta Stewardship Council, the state agency whose members were tasked by a 2009 law with crafting a legally enforceable vision for the estuary.
“The Delta remains in crisis, and now isn’t the time to set aside the state’s only comprehensive management plan,” Coolidge said in a prepared statement.
The Delta Stewardship Council approved its plan in 2013, with the aim of resolving decades of conflict among environmentalists, farmers, anglers and south-of-Delta water agencies over how the estuary should be developed and how much water could be exported from its channels.
A key requirement of the legislation that authorized the Delta Plan is that it balance the “co-equal goals” of protecting the rich Delta environment and ensuring stable freshwater supplies for the south state – seemingly contradictory demands that have defined the state’s water battles for decades.
Instead, the Delta Plan was met with a flurry of lawsuits reflecting objections from virtually all of the competing interests that depend on Delta water. Environmental groups argued the plan lacks the teeth to force a reduction in reliance on Delta water. The south-of-Delta agencies that rely on that exported water, meanwhile, said the plan failed to meet the requirement for stabilizing supplies.
Friday’s ruling came a month after Kenny dismissed most of those challenges. In a complex 73-page ruling issued in May, he denied most of the legal claims. But he did side with environmentalists on some central issues.
Most notably, Kenny said the plan fails “to promote options for water conveyance and storage systems” in the Delta other than presuming the tunnels project is built. Kenny also found that the plan failed to “include quantified or otherwise measurable targets associated with achieving reduced Delta reliance” for the state’s water supply.
Coolidge said the council already has been working to address those issues, and that Kenny’s decision to invalidate the entire plan – including the portions found to be without problems – was disappointing.
For their part, opponents to the state’s tunnels plan said the ruling marks a victory in their push to stop the $15.5 billion project. Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said Kenny’s rulings, taken together, will result in a quagmire of regulatory delays that could ultimately sink the tunnels plan.
“I think it likely pushes this out for years,” he said. “And Brown won’t be in office.”