Water crusade

Newly formed AquAlliance joins local water agency’s war

Water warriors: Visit www.aqualliance.net for more info on this new organization aimed at protecting local water resources.

A North State water agency has filed suit in federal court in Sacramento based on a 77-year-old state law that says water shall not be shipped from its area of origin unless and until the local water contractors’ thirsts have been quenched.

Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority represents the local contractors, 16 water districts in Glenn, Tehama, Colusa and Yolo counties. In its suit the TCCA charges that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has failed to follow a law passed in 1933 in connection with the creation of the Central Valley Project, then a state-sponsored undertaking. The project, which includes Shasta Dam, was designed to protect the valley from water shortages and floods. But in practice, it transports about 8 million acre-feet of water a year from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems to the San Joaquin Valley.

The state law was passed to assure Sacramento Valley water users, those in the area of origin, that they would see their needs met before that precious commodity was shipped south.

But because of the Great Depression, revenue bonds issued to finance the project didn’t sell, and in 1935 the federal government took over. Today the CVP is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. According to the TCCA, the feds are ignoring the state law. In fact, the suit says, in 10 of the past 30 years the local districts’ federal contracts have not been met. As late as 2008-09, TCCA contractors were given only 40 percent of the water their contracts call for.

Filed earlier this month, the suit is supported by a number of North State factions—environmentalists, farmers and commercial fishers—that in the past have fought among themselves over water rights. And in fact, the suit states that water taken to protect endangered and threatened species and their habitat is exempted.

One of those groups is the just-formed AquAlliance, which held a press conference this week after the CN&R’s deadline. According to a press release, the new group’s mission is “to defend Northern California Waters.”

“Within just the last three years,” the press release says, “urban and agricultural uses have pumped enough water from Central Valley groundwater basins to fill Lake Mead, which can hold 28.5 million acre-feet.”

With such a draw-down, the alliance says, “family farming of the North State cannot be sustained, the giant valley oaks, blue oak woodlands, and lush riparian habitat will wither away, creeks and rivers will decline, salmon and trout populations will continue to plummet.”

AquAlliance’s executive director is Barbara Vlamis, the longtime director of the Butte Environmental Council. Vlamis was bumped from BEC in a divisive and high-profile firing last year. A group of her supporters formed the alliance in part to give her a way to continue what many environmentalists considered her greatest strength—lobbying on ecological issues, particularly water.

AquAlliance’s membership is an odd assortment. It includes local environmental activist Jim Brobeck; Michael Jackson, a Quincy attorney who represents the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance; local developer Tom DiGiovanni of New Urban Builders; and Douglas Alexander, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Chico State.

It is funded in part by The Rose Foundation, an organization out of Oakland with concerns for the hydrologic health of the Bay Delta, for which water is supplied mostly by the Sacramento River.

“The lawsuit’s benefits are multifaceted,” Vlamis said in a recent interview. “One is that a large entity that represents many water districts and hundreds of farmers in the northern valley is stepping up to challenge what has become a standard practice for the federal and state governments: stealing water from Northern California for farming in the desert.”

She says if the suit is successful it will benefit the Sacramento Valley’s farming community as well as the creeks and streams that rely on a healthy hydrological system, which means protecting surface and groundwater in the region.

The water districts themselves, she said, are beginning to replace the screens and pumps that have been detrimental to fish populations and are beginning to employ more environmentally friendly methods of water use.

“This is about supply and needs in this region, and to date no large entity has stepped forward to challenge the state and the feds, not only in court but publicly as well,” she said.

The local districts, she added, have tried to work with the feds and state government in the past, but to no avail. “What more are we waiting for? The Delta is collapsing, and the farmers up here in the area of origin are not getting the water they need to continue their operations.”

Vlamis says there are farming businesses in the San Joaquin Valley, mostly on the west side, that simply should not exist.

“Number one, they have what are called junior [limited] water rights, and they signed them. Nobody held a gun to their heads. These contracts state that in any given year they may get zero water, depending on what the hydrologic health of the state is. Now, a good business person who had a contract that limited wouldn’t put in permanent crops. They would grow annual crops, knowing one year to the next they might not have any water.

“Putting in crops that compete with the landowners and farmers up here is a ludicrous business decision. They have intentionally set up this house of cards and tried to use their political clout and money to tip the scale so they become almost de-facto senior water rights holders.”

Ken LaGrande, a Colusa County rice farmer, serves as the TCCA’s chairman.

“We have been in ongoing discussions with Bureau of Reclamation to try to persuade them that our view is correct,” he explained in a recent telephone interview. “Eventually we came to the conclusion that it would be best resolved in court.”

He argues that from the very beginnings of the Central Valley project, it has been imperative that users of water in the area where it originates have a primary right to its use.

“This is the way the law reads,” he said. “It was on that fundamental belief that our great-grandparents agreed to indebt their land and put in irrigation systems and build an irrigated agricultural economy in this valley.

“And the assurances that were given verbally, contractually and legally by the United States and California at the time were what made people in the Sacramento Valley believe that this wouldn’t become another Owens Valley.”

He said “area of origin” is a policy that is both widely respected and supported.

“In our case there is a disagreement about whether the United States, in delivering water to the federal contractors, is obligated to follow that state law. We say we have a clear right to use the water that originates in our area prior to its export out of the area.”

Kip White, the Washington D.C.-based deputy chief of public affairs for the Bureau of Reclamation, and Lynnette Wirth, the bureau’s regional public affairs officer in Sacramento, both said they had seen the lawsuit, but could not comment on active litigation.

The suit will not be acted upon until it is assigned to a federal judge, which could come any day. In the meantime, the local litigants will wait, and hope for rain.