“We Will Not be the Next Owens Valley”

By on April 16, 2016
“We Will Not be the Next Owens Valley”

Delta Advocates File Lawsuit Against Metropolitan Water District

San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties were joined by Food & Water Watch, the Planning and Conservation League and the Central Delta Water Agency on Thursday in filing suit against Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California to block the agency’s proposed purchase of Northern California Delta land unless and until it completes an environmental review. The environmental assessment is required under the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA).  The district is currently in escrow for the purchase of 20,000 acres across five Delta islands and fertile farmland.

Filed in San Joaquin County Superior Court, the lawsuit asks the Court to stop MWD’s Delta purchase though the Los Angeles-based agency has offered $175 million to purchase the land from Delta Wetlands Property which is owned by Zurich Insurance Group, a Swiss financial services conglomerate.

Attached to the lawsuit, a letter from Stockton attorney Brett S. Jolley vows that the, “political leaders, residents, and landowners of the Delta decisively…declare that we will not be the next Owens Valley.” Jolley’s statement refers to the early 20th century when William Mulholland and Fred Eaton underhandedly acquired Owens Valley water rights to bring the valley’s water resources to Los Angeles.

Ultimately Mulholland and Eaton deceived Owens Valley residents and landowners by telling them that only the valley’s excess water would be used with no impact to the valley.  Far from that claim within a quarter century the Owens Lake was reduced to a parched, alkali flat in sharp contrast to its original lush, miles-long natural reservoir and habitat to numerous birds, fish and other animals.

For its part MWD has offered two differing accounts for its interest in purchasing the Delta acreage. The agency has claimed that it is only interested in Delta habitat restoration and is therefore exempt from any form of environmental review.  However, MWD’s own promotional materials acknowledge that the islands could be used for the building of the “California Water Fix” twin tunnels project under the Delta.

The islands in question—Bacon Island, Bouldin Island, Webb Tract, most of Holland Tract and a part of Chipps Island—are in the path of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed twin tunnels which aim to channel water from the Sacramento River to areas south of the Delta. The islands could be used to store heavy machinery and construction dirt for the tunnels project.

“Metropolitan’s outrageous claim that its Delta island purchase is too benign for environmental review can’t be reconciled with its own promotional materials, which portray the island purchase as clearing the path for construction of the Delta tunnels,” noted Roger Moore, the attorney representing the Planning and Conservation League and Food & Water Watch. “California residents and ratepayers deserve a higher standard of candor and accountability.”

Metropolitan has asserted that the Delta purchase is exempt from environmental review because the CEQA indicates that it only applies to projects with the potential for causing significant effects.  No definitive project has been formally proposed according to MWD. Cathy Stites, Metropolitan’s senior deputy general counsel, has said that once Metropolitan decides on specific projects for the property environmental analysis will occur.

“It’s not surprising that Metropolitan avoided a proper review as the land purchase is not in the interest of Southern California ratepayers and taxpayers,” said Brenna Norton, senior organizer for Food & Water Watch. “This purchase would promote Metropolitan’s effort to build the $67-billion tunnels which will only benefit MWD’s bottom line—while costing Southern Californians billions and not providing one drop of new water.”

Mark Myles, Esq., county counsel for San Joaquin County stated that, “MWD’s actions to sidestep CEQA in its deal to purchase the islands illustrates the lengths MWD is willing to go to acquire water for its own purposes without any regard for CEQA laws, environmental review and public input. San Joaquin County is not going to stand idly by and allow MWD to circumvent California environmental laws and make up its own rules in order to bulldoze its way through the Delta.”

Contra Costa County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff’s comments mirrored Myles saying, “Contra Costa County adamantly opposes Metropolitan Water District’s attempt to go around CEQA rules.  CEQA protects everyone from blatant attempts to destroy environmental requirements, and MWD’s flagrant disregard of CEQA in this instance continues to demonstrate how little it values the Delta and its critical ecosystem. Contra Costa County is a petitioner in this litigation because our citizens understand the importance of everyone having to follow the rules.  MWD leadership should be ashamed of this unbelievable tactic, which reflects its ongoing unwillingness to deal with Delta concerns fairly.”