Water districts get cold feet

Decide to back out of Bureau of Reclamation transfer project

An ambitious 10-year plan to transfer hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water per year from sellers in the North State to thirsty buyers to the south has sprung a leak, at least locally.

On Feb. 2, eight water districts, including the Glenn-Colusa, Maxwell, and Princeton-Codora-Glenn irrigation districts, announced in a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that they were withdrawing from the project.

The plan, which is part of the decades-old federal Central Valley Project, would ship water over the next decade to the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which represents agricultural water districts in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The plan was proposed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the largest wholesale water supplier in the country and the administrator of the CVP.

In a letter to the bureau, the districts—collectively known as the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors—say they are withdrawing as willing sellers because of a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental-protection organization.

That suit, filed three years ago in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is called NRDC v. Salazar, as in U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. It focuses on the water contracts between the Bureau of Reclamation and water districts throughout California. The contract renewals occur every 25 to 40 years, and the ones currently in place are about 30 years old.

Those contracts protect the respective water districts’ supplies. In their letter, the districts charge that the bureau’s stand in the suit does not recognize supply protections provided by districts’ existing contracts.

The letter says, in part: “[The Bureau of Reclamation’s] position threatens landowners within our service areas of not having enough water to irrigate crops, puts at risk endangered species and waterfowl that rely upon the continued irrigation of their lands, and could ruin the regional economy.”

A spokesman for the bureau said the withdrawal is based on a misinterpretation of his organization’s stand. But a representative for a local water-protection group said the move was the result of protest by locals determined to defend the region’s water supplies.

Last month the bureau held a meeting at the Masonic Center in Chico to collect public input on the project. But most of the public comments, which came from both agricultural and environmental interests, criticized the lack of details about the project itself.

Bureau spokesman Lewis Moore attended that meeting but said he could not comment on the lawsuit. He did mention the letter, which he said shows a bit of a misunderstanding by the districts. “They think their water supply could be reduced to zero, which is not accurate,” Moore said. “They have 2.1 million acre-feet in settlement contracts, but only a portion of that, 340,000 acre feet, is considered in the lawsuit.”

He said that quantity, as dictated by the Endangered Species Act, is the portion of the water that can be targeted for reduction. The Endangered Species Act guidelines, he said, kick in only under severe conditions such as drought.

“[The water districts] say the [Central Valley] Project water is indistinguishable from the full amount they are entitled to. That is where they are wrong.”

Moore said the transfer, or sale, of water is open to the hundreds of water districts in the Mid Pacific Region, which covers Northern California and stretches into Oregon and Nevada. As such, the local district’s withdrawal would not necessarily signal the death of the project.

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the watershed-protection group AquAlliance, said a number of factors are at work here. “The NRDC lawsuit suggests [the water district] rights should be reviewed, meaning they could lose some of them,” she said.

She also cited the long-term nature of the proposed project.

“I think doing serial one-year transfers up to this point has not bothered the districts. And even a two-year transfer program didn’t bother them. But with the bureau and the San Luis Delta Mendota coming forward with a 10-year plan, I can see concerns.”

(AquAlliance has filed a lawsuit in connection to the two-year transfers.)

She said the concerns voiced by locals about the status of local water supplies over the years are finally starting to get some attention, referencing the Chico meeting.

“My guess is the new information that is affecting their decision-making is that there is a growing movement up here of people who want to protect the groundwater.”

That meeting, she suggested, made it clear to the public that the proposed 10-year project is an acceleration of the transfer of water from the north to the south. She thinks other area water districts will follow suit, possibly crippling the Central Valley Project.

“They would be hard pressed to have a program without the districts,” she said.