Fight over water heads to court: Irrigation districts sue state board

As expected, a state plan to require higher flows for salmon in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers has spawned a flurry of lawsuits from irrigation districts in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, charging that the plan won’t help the fish but will cause extensive economic harm.

Thursday, the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority filed a detailed suit in Tuolumne County on behalf of its members, including the Turlock, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

The suit challenges a Dec. 12 decision by the State Water Resources Control Board approving the Bay-Delta water quality control plan, which requires districts to leave 40 percent of watershed runoff in the rivers to increase salmon populations.

The Modesto Irrigation District filed a separate suit Thursday in Sacramento Superior Court. While MID supports the legal actions of fellow members in SJTA, a spokesperson said, the district’s suit is more focused on the environmental studies for the Bay-Delta plan and the district’s relationship with Modesto. The city receives drinking water from MID.

“The state water board misused its power to adopt a misguided and devastating plan,” MID Board President Paul Campbell said in a news release. “Given their current plan, we’re left with no choice but to pursue legal action. We must protect our more than 130-year-old water rights, our water supplies and communities we serve.”

State water board officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.

MID and TID have worked with state officials on a voluntary agreement for improving Tuolumne River conditions for salmon, but faced a Friday deadline for court challenges against the Dec. 12 water board decision.

The SFTA’s lawsuit in Tuolumne Superior Court contends the State Water Resources Control Board violated state and federal due process laws when it adopted the first phase of the Bay-Delta plan for tributaries on the lower San Joaquin River.

According to a TID news release, the state board adopted a “wholly different plan than it analyzed” and committed other blunders in its environmental review of the controversial flow requirements.

By putting more water in the rivers for an effort that won’t likely benefit salmon, the state plan will cause substantial losses of water supplies needed for agriculture, city water customers, recreation and hydropower generation, the suit alleges.

The state plan also threatens to deplete groundwater resources and severely impact the region’s economy, the districts claim. In addition, the state board is usurping the historic water rights of the irrigation districts, requiring them to release more water in the rivers that may be used by junior water rights holders downstream, the districts said.

The Merced Irrigation District stressed some of the same points in a lawsuit Dec. 21 that also challenges the state board decision.

Irrigation district leaders said they preferred to collaborate with state agencies and participate in settlement discussions toward improving conditions for fish in the rivers. But the state water board disregarded their request to delay the decision until talks were completed.

“We have an indisputable responsibility to reserve our legal rights and protect our ag and urban customers,” said SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk in a statement.

OID General Manager Steve Knell said the district’s talks with the state toward a settlement agreement are in limbo. “It’s a matter of what the new governor wants to do,” Knell said. “We just don’t know.”

OID and SSJID provide irrigation water for a combined 117,000 acres in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. For more than 10 years, SSJID has supplied treated Stanislaus River water for domestic use in Manteca, Tracy and Lathrop.

The SJTA lawsuit cites a state board analysis estimating the flow requirements will impact more than a million acres of farmland in the valley. About 65 percent of the cropland is highly productive or designated as “farmland of statewide importance,” said the districts represented by SJTA.

District officials expect the state will try to have the lawsuits consolidated before a single judge, a process that will take eight months to a year.

Attorney Colin Pearce of Duane Morris LLP in San Francisco, representing Merced Irrigation District, said the district has an alternative plan, calling for increased flows and creation of pools where salmon can spawn, along with efforts to remove nonnative fish known to prey on young salmon.

By contrast, the state water board wants to take supplies from water users without a valid plan for producing more salmon, he said. “The state board sees it as a straight numbers game in which you put more water in the river and hope for the best,” Pearce said.