San Francisco Sues State to Retain Access to Vital Water Supply

The city of San Francisco doesn’t want to part with its share of the valuable Sierra Nevada water supply but the state may insist. The two are back at it again in court and it’s up to a judge to decide who gets the goods.

San Francisco, as seen from the Marin headlands. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

(CN) — The city of San Francisco claims state regulators are singling out the city during a drought and trying to deprive residents of a much-needed source of drinking water, namely the Sierra-fed Tuolumne River.

With another drought on the horizon, city officials say the state is being unfair by demanding more water than it needs — and more than the city has to spare. The lawsuit stems from a licensing deal for two dams controlled by a pair of nearby water districts which set the restrictions the city now seeks to maneuver around.

State regulators are calling on the city to abide by the agreement, which would drastically reduce the amount of water it can pull from the Tuolumne River to maintain salmon populations and ensure the river’s overall health. City officials claim they can do both while still providing for the 2.8 million residents who rely on the river for drinking water. Over 85% of San Francisco’s water supply is sourced from the Tuolumne River, so city officials feel they have no choice but to fight the proposed restrictions.

“The state’s approach is excessive and unfairly targets San Francisco,” said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, in an email. “The state’s Bay-Delta Plan is already an overreach that we’re fighting in court, and these new requirements are even more radical. In the middle of an extreme drought, the state should be working with us to ensure greater drought resiliency. Instead, the state’s most recent effort — done behind closed doors — ignores the science and could leave us with virtually no water during a drought.”

Herrera said the state’s efforts would deprive millions of Bay Area residents and businesses who rely on the important water source just when they need it most, and noted that San Francisco already has among the lowest water usage per capita in the state.

“It’s unfortunate we have to go to court, but that is our only option to protect San Francisco’s water supply and prevent this big giveaway,” Herrera added. “Other measures can effectively protect river wildlife without cutting off San Francisco’s main water source during a drought.”

Lawsuits over water rights in California are as old as the state itself, and this particular fight goes back decades. As climate change ramps up the pressure on the state’s limited water resources, the stakes continue to grow. With fish on one side and farmers on the other — everyone wants their cut of that precious liquid gold.

The city is fighting against flow restrictions put in place by the State Water Board when the board issued a water quality certification as part of the Clean Water Act. The restrictions were enacted to control the amount of water held by Don Pedro Dam and the La Grange Diversion Dam, which are owned by the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, respectively. According to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, nearly half of the flow demanded by the state will come out of the city’s share of water trapped from the river.

In the lawsuit filed Friday in Tuolumne County Superior Court, the city seeks to have those flow restrictions set aside and claims the board exceeded their jurisdiction in issuing them. City officials say the restrictions are unnecessary and believe the city can protect salmon populations and ensure the continued quality of the river without endangering local residents and businesses during a drought.

Representatives for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and Natural Resources Defense Council did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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