FRESNO, Calif. -- The state of California has resurrected its support of farmers and other water users in an escalating and complex legal dispute with the U.S. government over the management of the nation's biggest water project. The friend of the court motion filed in U.S. District Court by the Davis administration revives a challenge to the way the Department of Interior is meeting a provision to protect fish and wildlife under the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act.
The new Democratic regime, upon evaluating a similar brief it had recently withdrawn by outgoing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, now agrees that the Interior's water-allocation plan should be scrapped and revised.
The only difference between the two motions is that the latest one does not prescribe specific remedies.
The new brief was accepted by the court at the start of a daylong hearing in the ongoing lawsuit filed two years ago by the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. The case against the government has since been expanded to include a half-dozen environmental groups, and has been consolidated before U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger.
At issue is how 800,000 acre-feet of water allocated each year for fish and wildlife should be accounted for under an overhaul of the Central Valley Project. The San Luis authority, which supplies water to urban Santa Clara County and 1.3 million farm acres in the Central Valley, maintains that its 32 contractors should not have to show an ``impact'' of 800,000 acre feet in their yields. The environmentalists, meanwhile, argue that there is no guarantee the entire 800,000 acre-feet will be released each year.
The Department of Interior, which oversees the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, says the government's water deliveries for fish and wildlife have been right on target.
A brigade of lawyers representing all the direct and intervening parties appeared in court to debate the semantics of the statute and whether Congress established a clear way of determining how the water is measured.
The arguments propelled in circles for hours, with all sides rehashing whether the legal description of water yields is too ambiguous, and scrutinizing how the intentions of Congress were being interpreted by the Secretary of Interior.
``I'm beginning to wish I wore a flak jacket to court,'' said U.S. Department of Justice attorney Maria Arevalo Iizuka, who is representing the government. Iizuka said she believed Congress ``didn't have a clue'' to how difficult it was going to be to carry out the fish and wildlife provision, and didn't provide specific steps. That left the final plan up to the discretion of the secretary of Interior, she said.
``Is it perfect? No. But what is the alternative, since we can't measure the water?'' Iizuka said.
The judge questioned whether that was a ``trust us'' argument that needed further exploration.
And attorneys for water suppliers argued that if Congress indeed had no clue to the complexities of the case, the solution would be to start from scratch. ``The remedy is to go back to Congress and ask Congress to amend the law,'' said Thomas W. Birmingham, an attorney representing the San Luis authority. ``And that has not been done.''
Return to the U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water News Homepage