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San Francisco, Modesto, Turlock water agencies sue over alleged ‘water grab’

Some water agencies have been threatening legal action since the update to the river flow proposal was revealed, and, with the State Water Board approving the controversial plan, water districts from San Francisco, Turlock, Modesto, and other areas have filed a lawsuit against the proposal.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Since the updated version of the California’s river flow proposal was revealed, water agencies have threatened legal action if it was ever adopted as written.

After rallies, discussions, and delays leading to the final vote in December, the State Water Board approved the proposal and water agencies responded. 

On Jan. 10, Turlock Irrigation District (TID), Modesto Irrigation District (MID), Oakdale Irrigation District (OID), South San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID), and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission announced that they have all joined a lawsuit against the state for what’s been derided as a state “water grab.”

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Efforts had been made to find voluntary agreements among stakeholders. Both OID and SSJID were unable to find an agreement with other parties on the Stanislaus River before the Board’s vote.

TID and MID found a compromise, however, the plan was not adopted along with the proposal. Despite not being adopted, the parties still have a framework to work from if negotiations for agreements continue.

RELATED: State approves ‘water grab:’ Here’s what comes next for water users

“We are incredibly disappointed in the State Water Board’s December 12 action to adopt Phase 1,” said Casey Hashimoto, TID General Manager in a statement. “TID and our partners on the Tuolumne put forth a workable solution which could have been implemented immediately and would have produced a greater outcome for native fish when compared to the state’s plan.”

MID is continuing to collaborate on a potential voluntary agreement, and both OID, SSJID, TID (members of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, the entity that filed the lawsuit along with MID) claim they are ready to return to the table for negotiations.

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Advocates for the plan respond to the lawsuits

“We weren’t surprised that the irrigation districts sued. After all, they’ve never taken their legal responsibility to protect public trust resources, such as fish and wildlife, very seriously. But we were extremely disappointed that San Francisco joined the lawsuit,” said Peter Drekmeier, Policy Director for Tuolumne River Trust in a statement to ABC10. “The SFPUC is not representing the values of its customers, who care deeply about the health of the Bay-Delta and rivers that feed it.”

“The SFPUC has totally exaggerated the potential impacts of the Bay Delta Plan in an attempt to scare people into opposing it, but sophisticated audiences have seen through their misinformation campaign. The science and facts are on the side of the State Water Board.”

RELATED: 4 different sides to the State 'water grab'

According to the SFPUC, the litigation was necessary to preserve outcomes for 2.7 million customers who rely on drinking water from the SFPUC.

"With the SFPUC suing to duck its responsibility to keep salmon runs alive, it's more important than ever for Governor [Gavin] Newsom to continue the environmental leadership at the State Water Board to restore our rivers to a point where they'll support the state's native wildlife, including salmon,” said John McManus, President of the Golden Gate salmon Association, in a statement to ABC10.

“Governor Newsom is inheriting a status quo under Governor Brown’s Departments of Fish and Wildlife and water resources that's seen the Delta turned into little more than a seasonal stagnant cesspool and is killing the salmon runs that fishing families need to survive.”

What’s the lawsuit about?

According to OID and SSJID, the lawsuit comes about due to the lack of voluntary settlement agreements from the stakeholders. Hard deadlines and a change in state government translated to incomplete negotiations.

Agencies were given until March to develop plans for the river, but the legal window to contest the river flow proposal closes before that deadline. This is why the lawsuit was recently filed.

Allegations include claims that:

  • the flow requirements cause harmful impacts to agriculture, municipal supply, recreational use, and hydropower generation
  • the proposal will impact more than 1 million acres of agricultural land in the San Joaquin Valley
  • the water board does not “sufficiently describe” the legal authority to implement this plan on water right holders and local and federally funded reservoirs
  • the water board “adopted a wholly different plan that it analyzed, violated state and federal due process laws, and unlawfully segmented the environmental review of the plan”

“We file suit not because we prefer conflict over collaboration. On the contrary, we continue to encourage and participate in settlement discussions on our rivers, and support science on the Stanislaus. But we also have an indisputable responsibility to reserve our legal rights and protect our ag and urban customers,” said Peter Rietkerk, General Manager of the SSJID in a statement.

An MID specific lawsuit is also alleging a failure to comply with the United States and California Constitutions and the California Environmental Quality Act.

“The State Water Board misused its power to adopt a misguided and devastating plan,” said MID Board President Paul Campbell. “Given their current plan, we’re left with no choice but to pursue legal action. We must protect our more than 130-year-old water rights, our water supplies and the communities we serve.”

MID Vice President further contends that their proposed voluntary agreement will allow for water security and reliability in addition to environmental benefits and higher fish populations than what the state plan projected.


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