Water is golden in California, even without the drought. So it came as a big win for environmentalists Wednesday when an 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held they had the right to challenge long-term water supply contracts.
One year after the driest on record in the state, those water contracts must be revised to protect the smelt in the California river delta, the court said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and other green groups have standing to challenge the contracts by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau manages the dams and reservoirs that provide the water released downstream for both the fisheries and to supply the water contracts.
The smelt is a tiny fish that has been struggling for a decade, in part, from the diversion of water to mostly agricultural uses.
The NRDC sued in 2008 over those diversions in 41 contracts, calling them damaging to smelt, which were declared threatened in 1993.
The appeals court’s 11-judge en banc decision was unanimous. It held that nothing in the law prevents the bureau from consulting with environmentalists prior to renewing existing long-term contracts.
Judge Milan Smith, writing for the panel, said the bureau retains some discretion to take action to benefit a protected species.
Case: NRDC v. Jewell, 09-17661.