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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
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Giant Fight Over Giant Delta Water Project

SACRAMENTO (CN) - A Sacramento area sanitation district dumps 14 tons of ammonia into the Delta water supply every day, violating environmental law and destroying habitat of the protected Delta smelt, an environmental science group claims in court.

The Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability (CESAR) sued the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District on Feb. 9 in Federal Court.

CESAR says the sanitation district violates the Endangered Species Act and needs an incidental take permit to harm a protected species.

CESAR went to court a week after the district announced a $2 billion project to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant. The project is the most expensive in Sacramento County history and will reduce the amount of ammonia released into the Delta, said Prabhakar Somavarapu district engineer for the sanitation district.

The district acknowledges that the wastewater plant, built in 1982, is outdated and does release around 14 tons of ammonia daily into the Delta, but says it's operating legally with a permit from the Central Valley Water Board.

It claims the lawsuit will only delay its effort to reduce ammonia discharge and is essentially a distraction.

"They take a position that we don't agree with and I don't know what their ulterior motive is," Somavarapu said. "This lawsuit does nothing to improve what we produce and what we've been asked to do with the permit. "

The Delta smelt was listed as threatened in 1993 and has been the center of debate between farmers and environmentalists ever since. The 3-inch fish is seen as an indicator of ecological health. The Supreme Court in January affirmed a court decision to protect the Delta smelt.

CESAR says the lawsuit is not intended to distract or delay the district's project: it is simply about the harmful effect the discharge of ammonia has on the Delta smelt.

"The point of the lawsuit is to stop the actions that are expressly prohibited by the ESA," CESAR staff attorney Leah Zabel said. "We're asking them to stop destroying the Delta smelt's food."

The district's wastewater plant serves 1.2 million customers in Yolo and Sacramento counties. The water district is working under a 2021 deadline and says it has already spent $100 million toward reducing its ammonia discharge.

"We will meet it without any distractions, such as this," Somavarapu said.

The wastewater plant upgrade, called the Echo Project, is scheduled to begin in May.

"This is the largest project in the county's history. It will put hundreds of people to work," Somavarapu said.

CESAR said the Echo Project has nothing to do with its lawsuit and that it hopes the Delta smelt still exists by the time the project is complete.

"The Delta smelt could be extinct by the time their project is done," Zabel said.

CESAR's lead attorney is Damien Schiff, with Alston & Bird, of Sacramento.

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