California State Water Project Draws Ire of Environmentalists

Environmentalists say the State Water Project — California’s complex system of pumps and aqueducts that delivers water to thirsty farms and residents in the south state — is killing endangered fish and ruining the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

One of many bridges linking the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the outside world. (Courthouse News photo/Nick Cahill)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Four environmental groups sued California on Wednesday, claiming the complex series of dams, channels, aqueducts and pumps responsible for transferring water from north to south in the state are killing fish. 

“It’s time for the state to be honest about the damage being done to the delta ecosystem and our native fish by the unsustainable water diversions of the State Water Project,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center joined the Sierra Club, Restore the Delta and the Planning and Conservation League as plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in San Francisco County Superior Court against the California Department of Water Resources, which manages the state’s portion of the complex water-siphoning system. 

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a sprawling inland estuary and delta system at the western edge of California’s Central Valley where two of the state’s major rivers — the Sacramento and San Joaquin —meet just east of where they pour into Suisun Bay. 

The area is ecologically rich with a diverse panoply of unique species that avail themselves of the unique wetlands geography to thrive. However, those species have been steadily eroded as more and more water is pumped out of the system and then siphoned to the wealth of arable farmland in the southern reaches of California’s middle that consistent rain, particularly in the dry summer months of the Mediterranean climate. 

Drought has stoked concerns of the farmers who rely on water to not only put food on their own table but also on the tables of many Americans, as California functions as the breadbasket of much of the country and the world. 

Environmentalists have resisted calls from farms in search of more water, arguing more pumping would hurt fish like endangered salmon and the delta smelt, which hovers on the brink of extinction. 

Former California Governor Jerry Brown tried to appease both sides by trotting out the Waterfix — plans for two 40-foot large tunnels running 35 miles under the delta capable of delivering large amounts of water without relying on so many of the pumps that sweep up fish and kill them in large numbers. 

When Gavin Newsom assumed the governor’s seat in Sacramento, he whittled the ambitious plan to a single large tunnel capable of delivering billions gallons of water to residents and 3 million acres of farmland. 

The California Department of Water Resources now calls the project the “One-Tunnel Delta Conveyance Project” and continues to pursue the extensive environmental analysis required before any concrete plans can be hatched. 

But environmentalists still oppose the project, saying it hurts the delta’s unique ecosystem and injures farmers and residents who make a living in the delta. 

“Salmon, delta smelt, farmers and towns all depend on the continued flow of fresh water into the delta,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta. “The state’s long-term plan for running the State Water Project just hides its determination to close the spigot.” 

Specific to the lawsuit, the four organizations say California’s decision to renew another long-term plan for operating the State Water Project without fully analyzing the impacts presented by the state’s tunnel project falls short of the state’s environmental quality laws. 

“It’s bad enough that the department thinks the State Water Project has no environmental consequences,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “But it’s completely absurd for the agency to separate the long-term operation of the State Water Project from the tunnel project, which it’s actively promoting as part of that long-term operation.”

The State Water Project is only a portion of how water is siphoned from north to south. The federal government runs a similar parallel system of dams, pumps and aqueducts called the Central Valley Project, created in 1933. 

The feds and the state have been embroiled in an extended fight over water deliveries as well, with President Donald Trump promising in February to deliver more water to California farmers. His administration has pledged to make certain temporary deliveries permanent, allowing farmers to sidestep environmental reviews in the future. 

The Department of Interior is also launching plans to raise Shasta Dam, prompting backlash and lawsuits. 

But Wednesday’s lawsuit focuses squarely on the state of California, typically an ally for environmental organizations in its fight against the Trump administration but across the fence when it comes to the preservation of the delta. 

The California Department of Water Resources did not return a request for comment by press time. 

%d bloggers like this: