Water Districts Challenge Smelt Fish Protections

Major California agricultural water districts have accused the state’s Central Valley Water Project of environmental law violation in a 2008 plan that allowed increased water flows to save threatened young smelt in the delta region.

The Westlands Water District and San Luis-Mendota Districts claim in a July 8 federal lawsuit in Sacramento that the state’s biological operations plan, or 2008 BiOp, violates the National Environmental Policy Act.  Westlands contends the environmental statement issued in 2015 failed to analyze a range of alternatives instead of increased water releases, which would cut into the water districts’ water supplies.

Westlands alleged the plans reduce the water delivery to wildlife refuges and reduce farming production from reduced water delivery and will allegedly cost agricultural jobs as a result. The 2008 plan puts more emphasis on water users relying on ground water and would hit Westlands and San L.

The state’s Central Valley Project is the largest water storage and delivery system in the world with 21 reservoirs, 11 power plants, 500 miles of canals, aqueducts and tunnels.  The CVP operates to water system that supplies water to 2 million people through long-term water projects as well as agriculture, industry, power generation and fish and wildlife uses.

The 2008 BiOp addressed the impact of water diversions and overdraft of water for all the state’s uses on threatened delta smelt and attempted to address adverse impacts on the smelt’s habitat. The plan included reliance on ground water to make up for the increased water releases into rivers to protect smelt. The Delta smelt live in brackish water in a narrow range of salinity between freshwater and the ocean tidewater. (Summary of 2004 BiOp)

Westlands previously challenged the plan and in 2009 a court found the impact of the BiOp constituted a significant change in traditional water use and sided with Westlands finding an environmental statement was required. The ruling was later reversed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010.

The 2015 environmental statement produced by the CVP is the subject of the current lawsuit.

Westlands claims the EIS finding that there were “no alternatives” to the 2008 BiOps proposal was “arbitrary and capricious.” The lawsuit contends the CVP should have identified other mitigation measures.

Case: San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Dist. V. Jewell, No. 16-at-526


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