River Rock Barrier Will Hurt Calif., Group Says

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – The water project drought-minded California officials fast-tracked could reduce water supplies for millions, an environmental group claims in court.
     Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability (CESAR) filed the lawsuit in superior court Wednesday, claiming that the state circumvented environmental law to build a 750-foot-wide rock barrier across a channel of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
     CESAR says the barrier will harm protected fish species and increase salinity in areas unprotected by the state’s water project.
     “An action of this magnitude, which will affect both water supplies throughout the state and essential habitat, must be subject to a full environmental review at both the state and federal levels, to avoid even more catastrophic water shortages for both the species and citizens that rely on the water,” CESAR said in a statement .
     The state Department of Water Resources began construction on the barrier Tuesday and says it is a temporary fix to prevent additional saltwater from fouling freshwater that supplies approximately 25 million people.
     With the delta suffering from effects of a historic drought, state officials say use of the barrier for six months will prevent salinity-level degradation caused by seawater from San Francisco Bay.
     “We had hoped not to have to install any temporary emergency barriers in the delta this year,” California Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin said in a statement. “But conditions stayed dry through March and April.”
     The barrier will consist of “basketball-sized boulders” and will cover the channel in the shape of a trapezoid.
     In settling on the site across West False River, and scrapping plans for three rock barriers in the delta, the department said the location will cause the least harm to delta smelt populations.
     The delta has not seen emergency drought barriers since 1976, and the current project will block boat access to the impacted stretch of the estuary.
     CESAR claims the barrier will in fact increase salinity levels by pushing seawater into other areas of the delta and will harm smelt, Chinook salmon and other protected fish species.
     Maintaining salinity levels in the delta will require the state to rely on freshwater from its dwindling reservoirs, CESAR said, noting that “this action could severely affect the availability of water to millions of Californians.”
     The barrier project is one of several battlefields for farmers, environmentalists and politicians fighting over diminished water supplies in light of the shortage.
     A recent NASA satellite study showed that California needs 11 trillion gallons of water to pull itself up from the four-year drought – the equivalent of filling up Lake Mead one and a half times.
     Mandatory water restrictions the state handed out Tuesday for the first time order urban dwellers to cut usage by 25 percent. Gov. Jerry Brown told critics of another controversial delta water plan to “shut up” and study the project more intensely.
     In April, Brown signed a $1 billion emergency drought bill that provides funding to communities without drinking water and speeds up water infrastructure projects.
     California’s Department of Water Resources says the rock barrier will cost $28 million and is funded by a 2002 voter-approved water bond, along with general-fund money.
     CESAR is represented by Alston & Bird in Sacramento. It seeks a writ of mandate regarding alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and the Endangered Species Act.

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