Conservationists Challenge ‘Destructive’ Central California Dam Project

Del Puerto Canyon, on the west side of California’s Central Valley. (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

(CN) — A proposed dam in California’s Central Valley is billed as a vital agricultural resource. But conservationists say it would also flood important cultural and recreational sites for surrounding communities and destroy wildlife habitat.

Del Puerto Canyon near Patterson, California, is a “treasured place” supplying critical habitat for protected plants and animals as well as bicycle routes, hiking trails and bird-watching areas for residents, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

The entrance to the canyon area, called the “gateway,” is the area where water management officials propose constructing Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir.

But the dam, which would store approximately 82,000 acre-feet of water for nearby agricultural operations, would do more harm than good. Plaintiffs Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, California Native Plant Society and Friends of the River claim officials’ own impact report concludes the project would destroy indigenous cultural sites and emit dangerous greenhouse gases.

Water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would also destroy habitat for California red-legged frogs, California tiger salamanders and golden eagles, all of which are protected species under state law.

But the Del Puerto Water District’s 1,500-page assessment of the project’s environmental impact falls short of requirements for comprehensive review under the California Environmental Quality Act, the conservationists say in their 28-page lawsuit.

Center for Biological Diversity attorney Ross Middlemiss said in a statement the water district must revamp the entire project to meet the CEQA standards.

“The water district’s environmental review didn’t even attempt to determine how many of these imperiled animals would be harmed by the project,” Middlemiss said. “Officials’ vague promises to look just before the bulldozers start won’t protect these iconic species from the project’s destruction.”

Sean Wirth of the Sierra Club said in the statement the project also poses a risk to nearby communities if its structural integrity ever fails.

“The district’s plan to destroy this precious local landscape, and further strain the seriously imperiled delta ecosystem, is sad and unfortunate,” Wirth said. “This project would erase an important part of the area’s history and access to nearby nature, while also putting the residents of Patterson at risk should the dam fail.”

Patterson, a city of about 22,000 known as “The Apricot Capital of the World,” sits just a few miles from the canyon’s entrance.

Conservationists seek a court order overturning the district’s certification of the proposed dam and a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction blocking the district’s implementation of the project.

A spokesperson for the Del Puerto Water District did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Ron Stork of Friends of the River said in a statement the dam would draw more water than allowed under current contracts and strain a delta water system that’s on the brink of collapse.

“Sucking more water from the delta is not the solution to California’s water supply challenges,” Stork said. “This reservoir will only fuel increased demand among the agricultural interests of the San Joaquin Valley, worsening dependence on the already strained delta.” 

Nick Jensen of the California Native Plant Society said in the statement rare plant species such as the big tarplant, diamond-petaled California poppy and Lemmon’s jewelflower face obliteration by the project.

“Del Puerto Canyon is an important botanical and cultural resource,” Jensen said. “When a project’s analysis of impacts misses the crucial first step of information gathering — like here, where the plant surveys conducted were inconclusive at best — it renders the entire environmental review process meaningless.”

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