The 117 mile-long Delta Mendota Canal delivers Delta water to Westlands Water District and other San Joaquin Valley water contractors.

Winnemen Wintu Join Conservation Groups in Suing Westlands Over Contract Renewals

Dan Bacher
9/14/11

The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), Friends of the River, North Coast River Alliance, Save the American River Association and the Winnemen Wintu Tribe have filed a lawsuit against Westlands Water District and its two water distribution districts over the renewal of six interim water service contracts.

The action, filed 25 August 2011, concerns six Central Valley Project (CVP) contracts providing up to over one million acre feet of water annually from the Delta. The groups and Tribe say water exports out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are a principle reason for the decline of Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations.

Westlands, et al claims the contracts are exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). A call to a spokesperson for Westlands regarding their rationale for claiming a CEQA exemption had not been returned at press time.

The coalition disagrees strongly with the CEQA exemption for the contracts. The lawsuit asks for: injunctive relief, restraining the defendant from carrying out the project; a writ of mandate, setting aside contract approval; and declaratory relief, declaring the contracts to be unlawful, according to Bill Jennings, Executive Director/Chairman of CSPA.

“The environmental devastation wrought on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta by Central Valley Project operations generally and Westlands’ diversions specifically has become patent in recent years,” the petition states. “The importation of over 1,000,000 acre feet of water from the Delta to Westlands has caused substantial harm to the Delta’s imperiled fisheries. Boron, selenium and salt pollution in the Delta originates in part from return flow discharged by Westlands and surrounding water contractors.”

Key fish species imperiled by Delta water exports and contaminated return flows include winter, spring and fall runs of Sacramento River chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta smelt, longfin smelt and threadfin shad, according to the petition.

“These Proposed Contracts, if implemented, would have adverse impacts on the Delta, including but not limited to degraded water quality; harmful impacts upon sensitive and/or endangered species; lost of fish and wildlife habitat; and impaired recreation,” the document concludes.

The lawsuit takes place at a critical time for Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations. Over 11 million fish have been “salvaged” in the state and federal pumping facilities in the South Delta since January 1 as record amounts of water are exported to southern California and corporate agribusiness.

A horrific 8,985,009 Sacramento splittail, the largest number ever recorded, were salvaged by September 7, according to Department of Fish and Game data. The previous record salvage number for the splittail, a native minnow found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, was 5.5 million in 2006.

Agency staff also listed 35,560 chinook salmon, 1,642 steelhead, 51 Delta smelt and 14 green sturgeon as “salvaged” in the pumping facilities this year to date.

Chinook salmon, a fish devastated in recent years by record water exports out of the estuary, are an integral part of the religion and culture of the Winnemem Wintu (McCloud River) Tribe and other Native American nations. The Tribe is now engaged in an ambitious program to return the original strain of winter run chinook salmon, now thriving in the Rakaira and other rivers in New Zealand, to the McCloud River above Lake Shasta.

“Salmon are the ultimate source of good health for California Indians that have been missing from our diets for generations now,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “We need them back in our rivers and we need them back in our diets for balance to return to our world.”

The lawsuit also proceeds at time when the Brown and Obama administrations are fast-tracking the construction of the peripheral canal through the Bay Conservation Plan (BDCP) to divert more Delta water to corporate agribusiness and southern California.

The law offices of Stephan C. Volker are representing CSPA and the Coalition in this matter. For more information, go to: http://www.calsport.org.

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