(CN) – A judge denied a request Thursday by a federal water management agency for more time to evaluate the environmental impacts of California’s water transfer program that allows some water rights holders to sell water to parched farms in the southern part of the state.
U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O’Neill ordered the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to come up with its full environmental analysis of a 10-year water transfer program by the end of June.
The feds had asked for more time to complete the analysis after O’Neill vacated part of the program in an extensive 133-page order handed down in February, but the judge was not pleased with the delay request.
“Federal Defendants’ position, taken to its logical extreme, would turn the law on its head in the context of almost every complex environmental document,” O’Neill wrote in the 8-page order. “If a project is worth doing, someone, somewhere is waiting for it to happen.”
Water rights in California are a complex and often litigious matter, particularly as recent droughts have made the fight for diminishing allocations of water more strident.
The Bureau of Reclamation runs the Central Valley Project, which employs a series of diversions, canals, dams and pumping stations to move water from the northern part of the state — where California’s major rivers carry Sierra Nevada run-off — to the southern part of the state, where climate and soil make for good agricultural conditions but water is scarce.
The bureau manages water allocations and transfers along with the California State Water Project, as the two jurisdictions share infrastructure and some features of governance.
O’Neill’s order means the bureau will have to speed up its environmental analysis to meet the June 29 deadline.
The suit was initially filed in 2015, with lead plaintiff AquAlliance arguing that the biological opinion that the bureau relied on to justify its 10-year water transfer program was inadequate in several ways, particularly as it related to conservation of endangered species.
Conservation groups such as the California Sportfishing Alliance and water agencies soon joined the suit as plaintiffs.
In February, O’Neill sided mostly with the plaintiffs, as it ordered the feds to revisit some of the environmental analysis that undergirded the continuation of the program, but O’Neill did not halt the transfers at the time.
Immensely complicated, Western U.S. water laws often contain “use it or lose it” provisions that discourage rational conservation. The water transfer project was scheduled to expire in 2024.
The transfer method, which has been used in California since the 1990s, involves rice farmers and other Northern California contractors voluntarily selling their federal water allocations to buyers hundreds of miles away. The Bureau of Reclamation facilitates the sales from farming districts in counties such as Butte, Colusa and Sacramento, diverting water south of the delta to buyers in Alameda, Santa Clara, Fresno and San Joaquin counties.
The program allows up to 511,000 acre-feet of Sacramento Valley water to be transferred per year, depending on hydrological conditions.
For perspective, the plaintiffs say a city of 100,000 uses approximately 30,000 acre-feet per year. One acre-foot of water is equal to nearly 326,000 gallons. City planners estimate that one typical single-family home uses about one acre-foot of water per year.
The sellers make up for the loss of Central Valley Project water largely by pumping more groundwater or fallowing cropland. The north-south water deals are particularly common during dry years and are a longstanding piece of California’s water puzzle.
Conservationists say the water deals buoy Central Valley farmers to the detriment of the delta’s ecosystem. They say the transfers come with collateral damage, including poor delta water quality, land subsidence from increased groundwater pumping and reduction of giant garter snake habitat.
The snakes, one of North America’s largest native species, are endemic to California. Because of urban and agricultural sprawl, the now-rare snakes rely heavily on flooded rice fields and irrigation ditches.
The plaintiffs call the transfer program a “19th century solution” to a modern problem.
“These water transfers would drain both surface and groundwater resources from the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds, imposing significant and irreversible threats to the people and sensitive species that rely on these water resources,” the 2015 complaint states.