Calif. Public Water Agencies File Suit to Halt More Cutbacks

The Westlands Water District on Dec. 8 joined with 31 other public water agencies in the Central Valley in filing a lawsuit to block a new regulation that would enable state Fish and Game officials to cut off up to a million acre-feet of water for two-thirds of California’s people. Those reductions in freshwater supplies would come on top of the court-ordered cutbacks that last year reduced the state’s water supplies by roughly one-third in the midst of the drought, according to a press release.

“We’re taking this action to protect the public interest in our own water supply,” said Jean P. Sagouspe, a farmer on the westside of the San Joaquin Valley who is the president of Westlands Water District. “The Department of Fish and Game’s plan represents an abuse of power and a failure of good science and common sense.”

The lawsuit filed jointly by Westlands and the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority (SLDMWA) is one of three suits filed against the Fish and Game regulation by public water agencies from Northern and Southern California as well as the Bay Area. Together, the public water agencies opposed to the regulation are responsible for delivering water to more than 25 million Californians and nearly two million acres of agricultural land.

Fish and Game officials want to shut down the operation of the state and federal pumps in order to protect a species of minnow called the longfin smelt. But Fish and Game’s own studies show that longfin smelt do not live anywhere near the pumps. As a result, the agencies point out that shutting down the pumps will not produce any benefit for the fish.

Worse, the Department of Fish and Game is proposing to do nothing at all to reduce the effects of toxic pollution, invasive species, and other problems that the department’s own scientists admit are harming longfin smelt.

If the new restrictions are enforced and the drought persists, Water Resources Director Lester Snow has warned that it “could create a water supply and delivery crisis the likes of which Californians have not seen in decades.” In November, the Department of Water Resources joined with public water agencies from throughout California in submitting extensive scientific evidence in an unsuccessful effort to persuade the state Fish and Game Commission not to adopt this rule.

California’s Endangered Species Act requires that actions taken to protect a species have to be proportionate to the actual threat they face. Westlands’ suit, however, points out that if as few as 50 longfin smelt are harmed out of a species that numbers in the millions and ranges as far north as Alaska, Fish and Game would be empowered to begin shutting off water supplies for millions of people at an untold cost of billions to the state’s economy.

“There is no proportionality here,” said Sagouspe. “No rhyme or reason to the regulation. It simply reflects a false and destructive obsession with blaming the pumps for every ailment in the Delta.”

Although they support the other water agencies’ litigation, Westlands and SLDMWA needed to file a separate action as well because they rely on water from the federal Central Valley Project. The lawsuit filed today is based on violations of state law. Westlands and SLDMWA have an additional reason to ask for the new rule to be suspended because the U.S. Constitution bars the state from imposing these restrictions on a federal system.