Two counties, a pair of water agencies and conservation groups have joined together in a lawsuit to block the Metropolitan Water District's $175 million acquisition of four islands and part of a fifth in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
San Joaquin County, Contra Costa County, the Contra Costa County Water Agency, the Central Delta Water Agency, Food and Water Watch and the Planning and Conservation League argue in a suit filed last Thursday (embedded below) that the purchase requires further review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Last month, Metropolitan filed for a categorical exemption of environmental review related to the purchase, a determination usually made when activity on the land will have no environmental impact.
“This is simply a purchase of land,” says Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir.
Some of the land Metropolitan hopes to buy holds strategic importance to the California WaterFix, a plan to replumb the state’s water delivery system sought by Southern California and San Joaquin Valley water interests and boosted by Gov. Jerry Brown. Anchoring the plan are twin tunnels that would carry water supplies around the Delta to points south. Bacon Island and Bouldin Island, two of the five parcels, are on the proposed tunnel route.
Metropolitan’s opponents want the water wholesaler’s executive board to rescind the sale and do a full environmental analysis.
“Metropolitan’s general manager [Jeff Kightlinger] has blatantly stated that one of the reasons for their purchase was to build giant tunnels that would direct water away from the estuary,” says Jonas Minton, water policy advisor for the Planning and Conservation League.
“San Joaquin County is not going to stand idly by and allow [Metropolitan] to circumvent California environmental laws and make up its own rules in order to bulldoze its way through the Delta,” San Joaquin County counsel Mark Myles said.
Other legal challenges to Metropolitan’s plans could follow. Neighbors to the five properties had signed an agreement in 2013 with then-owner Zurich American Corp., setting conditions on how the land can be used. Those neighbors, including the Central Delta Water Agency, have said they plan to exercise their rights under that agreement.
The Planning and Conservation League's Minton says that the purchase could be a bad deal for Metropolitan's ratepayers. If opponents derail the tunnel plan, he says, that would leave the district's customers on the hook for levee maintenance and habitat restoration on the five island properties, hundreds of miles away from their homes.
But Metropolitan’s Muir counters that the district has not decided how to use the properties yet, so a full study of the property would be premature.
“Once we decide if we plan to change the existing use, we will do the required environmental analysis,” Muir says.
Metropolitan’s executive board, which narrowly approved the sale in March, has delayed discussion of the land deal until May. Under the terms of the sales agreement, escrow is expected to close in early June.