Ruling avoids additional CVP supply cuts

Issue Date: July 8, 2020
By Christine Souza
The Sacramento River flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near Walnut Grove. A judge’s ruling on water temperatures on the upper reaches of the river forestalled new supply cuts to water customers served by the federal Central Valley Project.
Photo/Christine Souza
The Delta Cross Channel gates, located near Walnut Grove, direct water from the Sacramento River through the delta to the Jones Pumping Plant.
Photo/Christine Souza

In the ongoing struggle over management of water supplies in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system, farmers who rely on deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project have earned an initial victory from a federal judge, pending further legal action later this year.

U.S. District Court Judge Dale Drozd of the Eastern District of California, who is based in Fresno, denied environmental groups' request for an injunction that would have required the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the CVP, to reduce water allocations as needed to manage water temperatures in the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam. The groups sought more cold water for spring- and winter-run chinook salmon.

"In light of the absence of evidence that the granting of the requested injunction would benefit either of the species of concern this year, the court will not take the extraordinary step of interfering in this complex regulatory regime," Drozd wrote in his June 24 ruling.

The public affairs officer for the Bureau of Reclamation California-Great Basin Region, Mary Lee Knecht, said the bureau appreciates the judge's denial of the motion and his finding that there was no evidence that protected species would be harmed by planned CVP operations.

"Our team of professionals work diligently to develop sound strategies to provide Central Valley Project contractors with a reliable water supply consistent with our obligations under the Endangered Species Act and other applicable laws," Knecht said.

Drozd's recent ruling followed an earlier May 11 order, granting a prior three-week injunction that had restricted CVP water pumping operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to avoid potential losses of steelhead through the end of May. In the pending litigation, environmental groups and the state of California have challenged 2019 biological opinions issued by federal fisheries agencies for long-term operation of the CVP and State Water Project. Both the state and the environmental groups had sought a return to previous biological opinions issued in 2008 and 2009 or other protections, including possible reductions in water deliveries, pending final resolution of the dispute.

California Farm Bureau Federation environmental policy analyst Justin Fredrickson said he found the judge's most recent decision encouraging, in part because of its analysis of existing protections in the 2019 biological opinions.

"The decision shows that the 2019 biological opinions are scientifically supported," Fredrickson said, noting that the new biological opinions offer "a nuanced approach that attempts to balance the trade-offs between water deliveries to water users and species in a responsible way."

In their request for an injunction, the environmental groups argued the 2019 biological opinions would result in higher fish mortality than would have occurred under the 2008-09 opinions.

"The court looked at that and said, 'No, there is not enough of a significant difference or clear irreparable harm to grant the preliminary injunction,'" Fredrickson said, "which means that the 2019 biological opinion can be implemented, at least through the rest of this summer."

Northern California Water Association President David Guy said when a judge considers preliminary relief such as requested by the environmental organizations, "there's a higher bar that must be met and the plaintiffs have to show that there is irreparable harm that justifies immediate action," adding, "The judge obviously denied that."

"Full water supply for the Central Valley Project is critical to economic recovery in California, as well as for the wildlife refuges and all the environmental things that the project serves," Guy said. "We'll probably see a full trial later this year or early next year and these issues will essentially be relitigated, but with more facts. This was really focused on the upper Sacramento River and temperature for incubating salmon."

Of the environmental groups' request for reduced water deliveries, Drozd wrote, "it is far from obvious, based upon the information provided … that the July Reduced Releases Scenario represents a material improvement over any other scenario under consideration," adding, "there is little difference in the results likely to be achieved in terms of water temperature management to provide 100,000 acre-feet of additional storage in Shasta Reservoir."

The judge also commented on related water-temperature modeling the Bureau of Reclamation provided to the State Water Resources Control Board.

"The court does not believe that Reclamation's response to the Water Board, nor any of the scenarios disclosed in that response, provides support for the granting of the requested injunctive relief at this time," Drozd wrote, but cautioned parties against misinterpreting his findings.

"This should not in any way be read as a finding that reduced deliveries should not be considered or that they could not make a material difference in temperature management," the judge wrote. "Rather, there is simply an absence of proof with respect to this issue in the present record before the court."

Fredrickson noted the state water board had previously denied the bureau's proposed temporary relaxation of Sacramento River water temperature requirements under a related water rights order, demanding additional studies be completed. Water district representatives say the agencies and stakeholders continue negotiating through a working group specifically on temperature modeling for Shasta operations.

Meanwhile, allocations to CVP agricultural water customers south of the delta remain at 20%.

Due to increased inflow to Lake Shasta, the bureau notified senior Sacramento River settlement and San Joaquin River settlement and exchange contractors last month that they should again expect 100% water supplies; in April, the bureau had reduced those allocations to 75%, based on inflow projections.

Supplies for SWP water customers stand at 20%.

Some south-of-delta districts have said they plan to purchase water to supplement the 20% CVP allocation.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




Special Reports

Features

Series

Special Issues

Special Sections