Water Conservancies Sue over Water Transfer Plan

On May 11, a group of California water conservancies, including Aqualliance, California Water Impact Network, and the Central & South Delta Water Agencies, sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the Eastern District of California alleging that the defendant’s approval of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority’s (SLDMWA) “water transfer program to move water from sellers located upstream of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta to willing buyers south of the Delta” violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The plaintiffs sought an injunction stopping the existing water transfer project and preventing the defendant from approving future projects until SLDMWA produced an environmental impact report (EIR) that complied with the requirements of NEPA, CEQA, and the Public Trust Doctrine.

The plaintiffs imputed the defendant’s violations of NEPA, CEQA, and the Public Trust Doctrine to the content of SLDMWA’s EIR that was required prior to receiving project approval from the defendant. Under those legal provisions, the EIR must be a “detailed statement” that includes the following: (1) the “environmental impact of the proposed action”; (2) an analysis of “adverse environmental effects which cannot be avoided should the proposal be implemented”; (3) any “alternatives to the proposed action”; and (4) evidence that the project will not “adversely affect traditional public rights in trust lands…[without] full consideration of the state’s public interest in the matter.”

The plaintiffs averred that the defendant improperly approved the EIR and subsequently the water transfer project, as the EIR failed to meet any of the aforementioned standards due to lacking the following content: (1) “analysis and formulation of mitigation measures” for “tree loss”, “streamflow loss”, “groundwater depletion and subsidence”, loss of “giant garter snakes” and “loss of third-party water supply”; (2) a proper analysis of how the project would impact water quality, climate change, groundwater, water supply, vegetation, and wildlife; (3) any “identifiable Public Trust Doctrine analysis”; (4) an analysis of how the project would affect future water conservation projects; and (5) an analysis of “the combined effects of recent past water transfer projects in combination” with SLDMWA’s proposed project.

The plaintiffs further supported the suggested shortcomings in the EIR by claiming that in 2015, SLDMWA submitted, and the defendant approved, the same EIR for the same project only to have the EIR vacated in 2018 by a federal district court judge on the same grounds laid out in the plaintiffs’ complaint.