Counties Fight SoCal Water Giant’s Delta Grab

     STOCKTON, Calif. (CN) — Political agencies and nonprofits in the Central Valley say the Metropolitan District of Southern California’s $175 million purchase of four islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta may cause significant environmental changes and sued to block the sale.
     San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties, Central Delta Water Agency, Contra Costa County Water Agency and Food & Water Watch and the Planning and Conservation League sued the district on April 15 in San Joaquin County Superior Court, seeking a court order blocking Metropolitan District of Southern California’s purchase of 20,369 acres of property — including five delta islands and tracts — until an environmental review is satisfied.
     The properties are in the path of a proposed tunnel construction project, California WaterFix.
     Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial $25 billion California WaterFix project calls for two tunnels up to 150 feet beneath the delta and three new intakes with 3,000 cubic-feet-per-second capacity and an average annual yield of 4.9 million acre-feet.
     The tunnel project has not yet been approved by either federal or state lead agencies, and critics in the north state have decried it as a Southern California water grab.
     Metropolitan District of Southern California agreed to purchase the land from Delta Wetlands Properties on April 8, after general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger was authorized to enter into a contract with the islands’ owner.
     The powerful water agency delivers an average of 1.7 billion gallons of water each day to more than 19 million people in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura. It has been in negotiations for months to purchase the islands, located in Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Solano counties.
     Zurich Insurance Group owns Delta Wetlands Properties, which in turn owns or partially owns four islands: Bacon and Bouldin Islands and the Holland and Webb Tracts. In addition, the property company owns part of Chipps Island.
     Metropolitan says the purchase will create a secure water supply to southern California. But opponents want a judge to block the June 8 escrow close, claiming that an environmental review must first be completed since the purchase and the activities that follow will have significant, harmful impacts on the surrounding environment, their individual interests and those of the general public.
     Metropolitan has said intends to “convert some of the lands to tidal and non-tidal wetlands by removing levees, replace agricultural lands with native tule vegetation to increase land elevations, and control an emergency freshwater pathway for freshwater suppliers to move freshwater supplies to north-to-south through the Delta,” the 19-page complaint says.
     The agency filed a notice of exemption under the California Environmental Quality Act with the counties of San Joaquin, Contra Costa and Solano, as well as with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. It claims the purchase is exempt from CEQA requirements since there will not be any significant environmental impact.
     But the counties and groups believe that in addition to the agency’s plans for the islands, “Bouldin and Bacon Islands are along the path of the proposed twin-tunnel pipeline alignment, ownership could help assure timely construction including providing access for the tunnels and staging equipment for construction of the twin tunnels project” — all of which will have an environmental effect that must be studied, the complaint says.
     The counties and groups also point out that Metropolitan did not hold a public hearing on the matter that would have allowed for public comment or provide any type of public notice in order to seek feedback. In fact, a Food & Water Watch member who attended the March 8 water district board meeting — and objected to the lack of an environmental impact report — noted “the project’s purpose to facilitate the California WaterFix project, and observed that the latter project lacked a final environmental impact report and approval,” the complaint says.
     The counties and groups seek an order that Metropolitan set aside its purchase decision and to rescind all related agreements — and stop its plans for the islands — until it fully complies with CEQA requirements.
     They are represented by Brett Jolley of Shore, McKinley & Conger in Stockton, California. Jolley told Courthouse News that Metropolitan “would not be spending $175 million on land located hundreds of miles from its boundaries if it didn’t intend to make some serious and signficant changes to the delta environment.
     “Metropolitan claims its actions are exempt from environmental review because it can be seen with certainty that its actions will not cause any significant environmental impacts. We disagree,” Jolley said. “The delta should not suffer just so the Kardashians can keep their lawns green in drought years.”
     In an email statement, Metropolitan told Courthouse News, “This is simply a purchase of land. We did analyze whether the purchase, without any land use change, was a project under CEQA. Metropolitan decided it was not a project because it has not yet decided what to do with the land, and alternatively, the purchase was exempt from CEQA because buying land alone will not impact the environment.
     “Although we have identified a number of potential future uses, we have not decided on any one yet. Once we decide if we plan to change the existing use, we will do the required environmental analysis. Right now, it would be speculative to do further CEQA analysis on the potential future uses. Our board of directors approved the land purchase, nothing else.”

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