San Joaquin Tributaries Authority Files Suit Over Unimpaired Delta Flow Proposal

By on January 18, 2019

Members the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority (SJTA) filed suit last week challenging the state’s right to arbitrarily increase flows in the Stanislaus and two other rivers. Plaintiffs in the suit are the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID), South San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID), Turlock Irrigation District (TID), and the city and county of San Francisco, acting through its San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). The SJTA injunction request was filed in Tuolumne County Superior Court against the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). At issue is the state’s proposed Bay-Delta Phase 1 unimpaired flow proposal, adopted last Dec. 12.

The lawsuit asserts that the water board’s plan “directly and irreparably” harms the SJTA members. The SWRCB’s plan is to require 40 percent in unimpaired flows, with a range of 30% to 50% between February and June.

The lawsuit claims that “the board’s own analysis estimates the project will impact more than 1 million acres of agricultural land in the San Joaquin Valley, the majority of which, 65 percent is designated as ‘prime’ or ‘unique farmland,’ or ‘farmland of statewide importance.’” Additionally, the lawsuit alleges the water board adopted a wholly different plan than it analyzed, thereby violating state and federal due process laws. The complaint further alleges that the state unlawfully segmented the environmental review of the plan by initially requiring higher flows from only three of the lower San Joaquin River tributaries – the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. The state’s plan excludes the upper San Joaquin River and the larger Sacramento River and its tributaries, which provides the majority of the water to the Delta.

“We file suit not because we prefer conflict over collaboration. On the contrary, we continue to encourage and participate in settlement discussions on our rivers, and support science on the Stanislaus. But we also have an indisputable responsibility to reserve our legal rights and protect our ag and urban customers,” said Peter Rietkerk, general manager of the SSJID.

Written comments from the members of SJTA state that the proposal by the SWRCB will devastate local water supplies for ag and urban communities and severely impact the regional economy. In brief, the lawsuit contends that the plan, “will cause substantial losses to the surface water supply relied upon by the SJTA member agencies for agricultural production, municipal supply, recreational use, hydropower generation, among other things. Implementation will also cause direct impacts to groundwater resources relied upon by the SJTA member agencies.”

The suit also argues that the SWRCB does not sufficiently describe the legal authority to implement the plan on senior water right holders and on local and federally funded reservoirs.

“It’s the decimation of a large portion of agriculture in the middle of the nation’s most productive food belt that should concern everyone,” said Steve Knell, general manager of the OID. “All this loss of productive agriculture to gain 1,103 more salmon a year — per the state’s own analysis — doesn’t make sense.”

The lawsuit is the culmination of efforts begun five years ago by state agencies together with the SJTA in hopes of developing voluntary settlement agreements to avoid the flow demands being proposed by the SWRCB in their Phase I document. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown and then-Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom urged the state water board to delay their planned Nov. 7 vote on the proposal – and the board complied. But, according to the SJTA, the hard deadline of a Dec. 12 vote set by the water board – and a change in state government due to Nov. elections forced the voluntary settlement agreements to end though a majority of the basin agencies were not able to finish their negotiations, despite being extremely close.