Delta blues

Chico water-warrior group AquAlliance and slew of others sue to stop Delta Plan

AquAlliance Executive Director Barbara Vlamis speaks with a local TV news reporter on the banks of the Feather River in this CN&R file photo.

AquAlliance Executive Director Barbara Vlamis speaks with a local TV news reporter on the banks of the Feather River in this CN&R file photo.

Photo By tom gascoyne

A plan adopted last month to manage the beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta could have cataclysmic consequences on the local environment, according to local water-watchdog group AquAlliance, which last week joined a legal effort to halt the plan.

AquAlliance—formed to “challenge threats to the hydrologic health of the northern Sacramento River watershed,” according to its website,—joined a handful of other groups to demand the Delta Plan be “vacated” in a lawsuit filed Friday (June 14) in San Francisco Superior Court.

The Delta Plan was created by the Delta Stewardship Council—a state agency formed by the Delta Reform Act of 2009—and adopted May 16. Its stated goals are to provide reliable water supplies for California agriculture and drinking water, as well as protecting, restoring and strengthening the Delta’s ecosystem, by means of such things as habitat restoration. More than 25 million residents and 3 million acres of farmland are dependent upon water sent south from the Delta.

AquAlliance and its co-plaintiffs contend the plan fails to meet California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) regulations, that preliminary environmental-impact reports were inadequate, and that the plan allows for too much water to be diverted from the Delta.

“The Delta Stewardship Council has refused to honor its own mandate, [which is] the adoption of an effective strategy for distribution of water, and preservation of the Delta,” said Carolee Krieger, executive director of the statewide California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), in a Monday (June 17) telephone press-conference with the plaintiffs. In addition to C-WIN and AquAlliance, the plaintiffs include the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Restore the Delta, Friends of the River, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Delta Reform Act of 2009 provided the council with the historic opportunity to remedy the water-policy failures of the past 40 years,” Krieger said. “Instead of seizing this golden moment and acting with dispatch and integrity, they decided to follow the lamentable precedent of caving to powerful corporate interests.”

Criticisms of the plan, as well as legal challenges, haven’t been heard from only environmentalists and water warriors. The case filed by AquAlliance and cohorts is one of seven filed as of Tuesday (June 18), several of which come from water contractors who claim—contrary to the environmentally minded complainants—that it doesn’t allow for enough water to be transferred.

“The only people this plan serves at all are those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, in a follow-up interview to the press conference. “The real problem with that is the status quo is already unsustainable; the amount of water already being transferred is too much.”

Vlamis said the California Department of Water Resources has “failed terribly” to protect its groundwater resources; the agency has publicly acknowledged at least 11 basins across the state have been over-drafted since the early 1980s.

A good deal of the controversy around the Delta concerns the proposed construction of two enormous tunnels—each 40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long—planted 150 feet beneath the Delta to replace the current pumping system and enable more water to be funneled south. Though being developed separately, the $14 billion tunnel project will be folded into the Delta Plan once it is approved and permitted.

“The real problem child in this situation is the western San Joaquin Valley,” Vlamis explained. “It’s a desert that they made the poor business and environmental decision to turn into farmland at one point, and they continue to make bad decisions to try to keep it going.”

Turning dry land into farms in one place can lead to throwing another off balance, Vlamis explained, as she warned of the effects the twin tunnels could have locally.

“If they build them,” she said, “we might as well start adjusting to life in the desert, because that’s what it will become here.”

Vlamis said too few people—including local legislators—understand the impact that taking water from one place can have on another.

“When you consider water in the Delta, you also have to consider the source,” she said, noting water in Butte and surrounding Glenn and Tehama counties comes from the Tuscan Aquifer, an underground reservoir. She said serious threats come from what she calls “double-dipping.” Once surface water is diverted to other uses, she explained, more groundwater is extracted to compensate for the loss.

Vlamis said she believes the Delta Stewardship Council didn’t take into account prevailing science and simple math that proves the plan is unsustainable, and said the proper information was always at the panel’s disposal. For one, she said the Environmental Water Caucus, a coalition of more than two-dozen environmental groups (including AquAlliance), fishing organizations, environmental-justice groups and Native American tribes, presented the council with several reports that could have contributed to a better plan.