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California water wars: DOI’s pumping cutbacks prompt lawsuit

SLDMWA is immediately filing suit to ask the federal court for a temporary restraining order to stop Interior from reducing California's water supplies any further.

The Department of the Interior's decision last night to cut back on water deliveries for the Central Valley is a direct violation of federal law, the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority (SLDMWA) announced. SLDMWA is immediately filing suit to ask the federal court for a temporary restraining order to stop Interior from reducing California's water supplies any further.

"The law is crystal clear," said SLDMWA Executive Director Dan Nelson. "When there is an abundance of water as there is in this very wet year, the Bureau of Reclamation is obligated to export and store as much water as its system can manage."

This requirement is a key provision of an agreement between the federal government and the State of California concerning the coordinated operations of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act requires that Reclamation meet its obligations under this agreement. That agreement was first signed on May 20, 1985, and it has been repeatedly ratified by Congress in the years since, most recently in 2009.

Interior approved the cutbacks after reviewing an order issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that directed the Bureau of Reclamation to ratchet down the pumping at the C.W. "Bill" Jones Pumping Plant. Both Reclamation and USFWS are part of the Department of the Interior.

"The agreement on coordinated operations recognizes a basic principle of responsible water conservation: when nature provides an abundance of water, you need to do everything you can to ensure that it is saved for the future and not left to run into the ocean unused," said Nelson. "There is no doubt that we are currently in a wet period but Interior is ignoring its obligations under the law."

Despite this year's record wet conditions, CVP deliveries to the agricultural water service agencies south of the delta have already been limited to only 80 percent of their project supplies.  

USFWS reportedly initiated this action to protect fall run Chinook salmon. But that species has not been listed under the Endangered Species Act. And other federal fisheries experts have repeatedly pointed out that the recent increase in the number of fish taken at the pumps simply reflect a large, healthy increase in fish abundance this year. 

"The decision to reduce pumping at a time when there is so much water in the Delta is clearly punitive and it defies explanation in terms of responsible water management and good public policy," said Nelson. "It creates another unnecessary and destructive controversy over excessive federal interference in California's water supplies. 

"This is exactly why some members of Congress feel an overhaul of the laws governing the use of Central Valley Project water for the environment is necessary and recently introduced legislation to do so. As things are now, even when the statutes are unambiguous, these federal officials choose to ignore them."

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