[env-trinity] North state lawsuit a major onslaught in war over water

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Fri Feb 19 11:02:54 PST 2010

North state lawsuit a major onslaught in war over water
By Mike Taugher Contra Costa Times
Posted: 02/18/2010 05:05:10 PM PST
Updated: 02/18/2010 05:34:39 PM PST

Invoking the specter of a century-old Los Angeles water grab, Northern California farmers have filed a lawsuit that may escalate the state's ongoing water crisis.

The farmers say the San Joaquin Valley communities hardest hit by drought and new protections for endangered species in the Delta - including the nation's largest irrigation district - are nevertheless illegally getting water that belongs to the northerners.

"The last thing we want to see is the Sacramento Valley become another Owens Valley," said Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority general manager Jeff Sutton. He was referring to the early 20th century raid on the Owens Valley by Los Angeles, an episode made famous by the 1974 movie "Chinatown."

At issue are guarantees made before California's two major water projects were built to deliver water through the Delta to parts of the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Those guarantees, known as "area of origin" laws, say that water-rich areas of the state would not end up water poor when the projects started shipping water elsewhere.

The Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, which serves orchards and farms in Tehama, Glenn, Colusa and Yolo counties, says that is exactly what has been happening with increasing frequency. Its farmers are entitled to 100 percent of their contracted water supplies before any water can be sent from the Delta to the Westlands Water District and smaller San Joaquin 

districts, the authority says. In recent years, the authority's farmers have seen their contract amount cut by more than half, nearly as severe as cuts in the San Joaquin Valley.

"I've been waiting for this lawsuit for about 30 years," said Michael Jackson, an attorney who frequently represents environmental groups and Northern California interests on water issues but is not involved in this case. "It had to happen sooner or later. There's just not enough water."

"I think it is one of the four or five biggest things that have happened in California water law," Jackson said.

More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed in the last couple of years as water agencies, environmental groups wrangle over a water system that appears to be bordering on chaos. 

Scientists are concerned some Delta fish species could be headed for extinction, the number of returning adult salmon in what was just a few years ago a commercially valuable run fell to a record low - and no one understands exactly why.

The result is that as demand for water has grown, the supply has effectively shrunk as more water is dedicated to the environment. Water agencies are now more willing to fight each other for water in what is clearly a zero-sum game.

The area-of-origin laws have been used infrequently. In effect, the lawsuit is a declaration that the time has come for the federal government to keep promises made many decades ago that Northern California would have access to water in its watersheds when it was needed.

The lawsuit could result in taking water from downstream customers of the federal Central Valley Project, which are mostly farm districts in the San Joaquin Valley that have been hardest hit by the recent drought and which face the likelihood that they will not be able to recover if this year turns out to be normal.

"What we're talking about is a small fractional reduction to those folks," Sutton said. "We're sympathetic to those folks in the San Joaquin Valley."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the project, said it would not comment on the lawsuit.

But in a September letter to the northern canal authority, the bureau's regional director, Donald Glaser, said the government cut their water supply because of dry weather.

A spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, the nation's largest irrigation district and biggest customer of the Central Valley Project's Delta pumps, said the lawsuit was another sign that the state's water supplies are inadequate, which she blamed on environmental laws.

"Everyone is currently fighting for every last drop that we have," Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf said. "It's not surprising.'
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