On April 16, a federal appeals court ruled that federal contracts to supply water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, which promised more water than exists in an average year, were renewed illegally. In a unanimous ruling, an eleven-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Natural Resources Defense Council, San Francisco Baykeeper, and other environmental groups.
The ruling does not affect this year’s pumping of water from the Bay-Delta or water deliveries. However, the decision opens the door to the water contracts being revised in a way that better protects the Bay, Delta, fishing industry jobs, and communities that depend on the Bay-Delta ecosystem.
“This decision recognizes that promising more water than can safely be delivered from the Bay-Delta is bad for water users and long-term water supply. We need to reform water supply contracts to ensure that they are compatible with a sustainable water future for the Delta and all its water users,” said Natural Resources Defense Council staff attorney Doug Obegi.
The Bureau of Reclamation first granted several dozen long-term contracts in 1964 for irrigation water from the Sacramento River and the Delta-Mendota Canal. When the contracts came up for renewal in 2004, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists said the water deliveries would not jeopardize endangered fish species. The contracts were renewed in 2004 and 2005.
But in 2008, the biologists re-examined the issue and reached the opposite conclusion. Numerous scientific reviews have also concluded that unsustainable levels of water diversions from the Bay-Delta harm the health of the water system and contribute to the decline of salmon and other native fisheries in the watershed.
The appeals court overturned two earlier court rulings that had upheld the federal government’s renewal of the water supply contracts. The justices noted that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had never re-consulted with government biologists or amended the contracts.
Baykeeper joins with Natural Resources Defense Council and our allies in advocating for the water supply contracts to be revised to include more equitable allocations of water and more requirements for water conservation, in order to protect and restore the health San Francisco Bay and Delta.