California ‘Water Grab’ Faces First Legal Challenge

MERCED, Calif. (CN) – Firing off the first challenge to contentious state-mandated water reductions for farmers and cities, a rural California water district sued the state Friday to freeze the week-old order meant to boost salmon populations in state rivers.

In this Jan. 8, 2017 file photo, the Merced River flows under the Pohono Bridge in Yosemite National Park, Calif. (Silvia Flores/The Fresno Bee via AP, File)

Merced Irrigation District says the State Water Control Resources Board’s Dec. 12 decision is a “water grab” that will steal water from farms and disadvantaged Central Valley communities. The district claims the order will divert up to half of its take of the Merced River, cost the local economy 1,000 jobs and over $230 million without benefiting a single fish. 

“Diverting senior water rights away from the district and its customers for the benefit of others does nothing to protect the salmon and fish populations the state purports to want to protect…and does nothing to address the main stressors affecting the salmon lifecycle,” the 150-page complaint filed in Merced County Superior Court states.

Capping off nine years of review and debate, last week the water board approved long-awaited updates to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Plan. The amendments require more water to be left in the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers during periods when salmon are returning to spawn. After over eight hours of discussion, the water board approved the update in a 4-1 vote.

“Californians want a healthy environment, healthy agriculture and healthy communities, not one at the undue expense of the others,” said water board chair Felicia Marcus after the vote. “Doing that requires that the water wars yield to collective efforts to help fish and wildlife.”

The water board’s decision comes as California’s natural resources agencies are courting a host of individual agreements with water suppliers across the state. The parties are hoping to sign “voluntary agreements” on water reductions in lieu of another strict water board order.

The resources agencies told the water board they have tentative agreements with suppliers on a host of rivers to cut back on water and fund salmon habitat restorations, but that they haven’t reached deals with suppliers on the Merced or Stanislaus rivers. 

Merced Irrigation District serves over 2,000 farmers and is one of the oldest suppliers in the state with pre-1914 water rights. It claims the water board only held one meeting two years ago in Merced County to discuss the controversial plan with residents. It’s suing for preliminary and permanent injunction of the update and wants the water board forced back to the drawing board.

“The people in our community didn’t convert the Bay-Delta floodplain into farms and cities,” said district general manager John Sweigard in a statement. “It is not our community that is polluting the delta. And it certainly is not our community pumping fresh water out of the Bay Delta: these are delta problems that have been approved by the state – period.”

 The water board declined to comment on the lawsuit.

As for the tentative agreements secured by the resource agencies, the water board says it’s leaving the door open and will consider them. The proponents say they will have a draft plan to the water board by March 1.

The Merced Irrigation District seeks – over 51 causes of action – an order setting aside the water plan until the state brings the plan into compliance with environmental laws, including a new and complete review of the plan under the California Environmental Quality Act. The district also wants the court to order the water board to conduct “properly noticed water rights hearings” on the new plan once it passes environmental muster.

Colin Pearce and Anjali Kulkarni of the San Francisco firm Duane Morris filed the lawsuit on behalf of the water district.

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