Delta News

State Supreme Court gives Metropolitan go-ahead to buy Delta islands

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California can proceed with its $175 million purchase of five islands in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, even as legal challenges continue. A portion of Chipps Island, pictured here, is part of the sale.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California can proceed with its $175 million purchase of five islands in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, even as legal challenges continue. A portion of Chipps Island, pictured here, is part of the sale. Sacramento Bee file

It’s official: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is going to own five islands in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

On Thursday, the California Supreme Court declined to temporarily halt the $175 million purchase, turning aside a petition from a coalition of environmental groups and local water districts, along with San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties.

The court’s decision means Metropolitan “can go forward and purchase the lands,” said Brett Jolley, a lawyer representing San Joaquin County.

Lower courts had temporarily stalled the sale.

The previous owner, Delta Wetlands, an affiliate of a Swiss insurer, had wanted to build reservoirs on the islands to market water to areas south of the Delta.

Metropolitan has said it won’t pursue that plan, but it has said the islands could be used to facilitate development of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two giant tunnels beneath the Delta.

With that in mind, Jolley said the county has every reason to oppose Metropolitan’s land purchase. The tunnels would be used “to export more water to Southern California,” Jolley said.

Metropolitan’s general manager, Jeff Kightlinger, said in an interview this week that the islands could be used as staging areas for tunnel construction equipment. He said he’s also optimistic that even if the tunnels aren’t built, his agency plans on transforming portions of the islands into wetland habitat. The idea is that by improving the Delta’s ecosystem, it would help endangered fish species and lift some of the restrictions that prevent as much Delta water from being pumped to Southern California.

The Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t settle Metropolitan’s legal fight over the pending sale.

Jolley said the county will continue to pursue its lawsuit. If the county ultimately wins the case, Metropolitan could be forced to undo the purchase, he said. Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit filed in Contra Costa Superior Court argues that Delta Wetlands signed a contract that requires future buyers to abide by the negotiated settlements.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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