Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Delta farmers sue to block Delta canal plan

Delta farmers have sued to block plans to build an aqueduct that would divert Sacramento River water around the Delta.

It is the latest in a flurry of about a dozen active lawsuits over California's most important and fought over source of water, but it appears to be the first to directly take on new plans to build a peripheral canal like the one voters defeated in 1982.

"This is a life-and-death struggle for us, and we're not giving up," said John Herrick, a lawyer for the South Delta Water Agency, one of two water districts that filed the lawsuit last week in federal court in Sacramento.

At issue is a mammoth planning effort that seeks, by the end of next year, to have a detailed plan and permit to build a peripheral canal around the Delta that would also help conserve fish and other wildlife that are in danger of extinction.

The plan, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, would be the largest and most complex habitat conservation plan ever under state and federal endangered species laws. It is also on a schedule that would also make it one of the fastest.

The lawsuit, filed late last week in federal court in Sacramento, says the plan violates planning laws because the environmental review has begun even though there is no specific plan for critics to analyze.

"Because of that lack of information, the public and impacted agencies and jurisdictions ... cannot determine what impacts the (conservation plan) will have
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nor whether it complies with the law," the lawsuit said.

Supporters of the plan say the urgency is warranted because of the collapse of several fish populations and the effect of the environmental crisis on water supplies.

"They are sort of grasping at straws," said Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors, an association of water agencies. "We have a huge fishery crisis that needs to be dealt with. We have a water supply crisis that needs to be dealt with."

For water officials, the conservation plan could solve two problems with a single stroke:

• First, water managers would be relieved of traditional regulations under endangered species laws because the plan is supposed to be a more comprehensive approach to environmental protection.

• Second, by taking the view that building a canal around the Delta would prevent fish from being killed at Delta pumps, water officials could get regulatory approval for a highly contested structure.

The environmental study of the plan, which would include a canal but also wetlands restoration and other measures, is underway even though the state has not detailed proposal for the project.

Delta farmers have the most to lose from a canal because it would deprive the Delta of fresh water that now flows from the Sacramento River south to the vicinity of pumps near Tracy.

If the Sacramento River water were diverted to a canal, the water used by Delta farmers would become more polluted with pesticides and salts from irrigation in the San Joaquin Valley, along with more salt from inflows from San Francisco Bay. That also would affect water quality near the intakes used by the Contra Costa Water district.

"We will go out of business if they build and operate a peripheral canal," said Herrick. "We will salt up. ... It's simple physics."

The lawsuit, filed by two Delta farming districts — the Central Delta Water Agency and the South Delta Water Agency — also serves notice that the Delta agencies are preparing another lawsuit that says the conservation plan violates endangered species laws.

Mike Taugher covers the environment. Reach him at 925-943-8257 or mtaugher@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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