Government Sued by Environmental Groups for Permanent Water Contracts

The Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior, as well as its secretary David Bernhardt, received a lawsuit from environmental groups claiming they violated the National Environmental Policy Act by converting renewal contracts with water contractors from the Central Valley Project (CVP) into permanent contracts. The complaint alleged the contracts reduce freshwater in the San Francisco-San Joaquin Bay-Delta estuary and cause contamination in the San Joaquin River and other water bodies in the Central Valley of California.

The plaintiffs are non-profit environmental agencies including the Center for Biological Diversity represented by John T. Buse, Restore the Delta (RTD), and the Planning and Conservation League (PCL) both represented by the Law Office of Adam Keats. They request that the defendants are restrained from converting or amending additional contracts, including 26 contracts they claim are in the process of being converted to permanent contracts. They also ask that the defendants be required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The plaintiffs said the 14 contracts that have been converted into permanent contracts already require the federal departments to deliver 1,799,148 acre-feet of water through the CVP each year, the contracts that are in progress would require an additional 480,679 acre-feet. The CVP is “the latest surface water storage and delivery system in California;” it contains 20 reservoirs and provides 6 million acre-feet of water annually. A large majority of that water, 5 million acre-feet, is sent to agricultural contractors.

The water delivered through the CVP is diverted from rivers and the Delta. The petitioners claimed they have “significant adverse environmental impacts on the watershed.” They claimed it degrades water quality in the Delta, reduces freshwater availability, affects endangered and threatened fish species, causes harmful algal blooms, and adversely impacts public health and safety and nearby agriculture.

“In the 27 years since the enactment of the CVP Improvement Act, fish species in the Bay-Delta have declined toward extinction including endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, threatened spring-run Chinook salmon, threatened Central Valley steelhead, threatened green sturgeon, threatened Delta smelt, and state-protected longfin smelt. These declines have been caused and worsened by CVP diversions which result in rising water temperatures, increased salinity, sedimentation and other harmful reductions in water quantities, freshwater flows, and water quality,” the complaint stated.

The environmental groups claimed that the defendants are in the process of converting all of their CVP contracts into permanent contracts and that this would have a significant negative impact. They also say the government agencies have refused to provide an environmental impact statement or comply with NEPA and falsely claim they have no discretion in the contract negotiations.

The suit comes alongside other unrelated California water rights cases filed recently.