Oakland—On January 22, a coalition of environmental and Tribal organizations took legal action in the Superior Court of California, County of Sacramento, against the California Department of Water Resources for violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The groups filing the lawsuit against the Department of Water Resources include The Bay Institute, California Indian Environmental Alliance, Golden State Salmon Association, Restore the Delta, San Francisco Baykeeper, and the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. The groups are represented by Jason Flanders at Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group and by attorneys at San Francisco Baykeeper.
“The groups contend that when the agency finalized approval for Governor Newsom’s controversial Delta tunnel project in December 2023, it failed to consider, avoid, or mitigate the wide range of negative effects the project would have on Tribal and other historically marginalized communities, as well as on endangered fish populations and other wildlife,” according to a press statement from the coalition.
“The Delta tunnel—also called the Delta Conveyance Project—would divert vast quantities of fresh water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary to industrial agricultural operations, as well as to large cities south of the Delta and outside of the Bay-Delta’s watershed. The health of the Bay-Delta, its wildlife, and its local residents depend on fresh water flowing from its Central Valley tributary rivers into the Bay,” they continued.
”The tunnel will also destroy Tribal sites that have been in use for thousands of years, along with the cultural practices associated with them. The agency's CEQA review failed to consider the tunnel's cultural implications for the Delta's Tribal peoples who continue to rely on the Delta for their survival, and for whom the Delta is a fundamental part of their histories,” the coalition stated.
Among a host of errors, the coalition said the Department of Water Resources relied on a Trump-era interpretation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), even though California’s attorney general is challenging that opinion right now in court.
The coalition noted that California diverts more than half of the water flowing through Central Valley rivers to serve industrial agriculture and big cities.
“Because of excessive water diversions, more and more fish native to San Francisco Bay and its watershed are verging on extinction, and California's fisheries are increasingly shut down,” the groups stated.
Representatives of groups in the coalition commented on the filing of the lawsuit.
“We are witnessing the creation of the next endangered species: the salmon families across California and Oregon who rely on the health of our fishery for their living, their community, and their culture,” said Scott Artis, executive director, Golden State Salmon Association: “The Delta tunnel is one of the biggest salmon-killing projects in state history, and Governor Newsom has his hand directly on the spigot.
“The governor is doing everything he can to divert water away from our rivers, fish, and people in a vain effort to appease an insatiable industrial agricultural thirst. The salmon industry is already suffering from the Newsom fishing shutdown. California salmon fishing was completely closed in 2023, and is likely to be closed in 2024, because the governor mismanaged our rivers during the drought,” he explained.
"Governor Newsom’s Delta tunnel would harm all of the communities that depend on the Bay and its tributary rivers, degrade the Bay's water quality, and further decimate ecosystems and fisheries that are already in crisis,” stated Eric Buescher, managing attorney, San Francisco Baykeeper: “Yet, the governor is hell-bent on sending more of the Bay’s fresh water to unsustainable industrial agriculture and to big cities outside of the watershed. He’s even willing to rely on the Trump administration’s misapplication of the law to get the job done. The Bay belongs to all of us, so we must make sure the Bay's ecosystem is healthy. We had no choice but to take legal action to stop this harmful project.“
"The approved project document is inadequate because the Department of Water Resources is only committed to providing water for powerful political interests in California, and not managing the estuary for the common good, including tribes and environmental justice communities in the Delta,” argued Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director, Restore the Delta. "The Newsom Administration is pitting regions against each other for our limited water supply, rather than creating a climate water plan that equitably serves all Californians."
“Over the course of a century and a half, California has constructed what is arguably the world’s largest, most landscape-altering and environmentally destructive system of dams, canals, and diversions,” observed Gary Bobker, Program Director, the Bay Institute. “The result has been the closure of salmon and other important fisheries, toxic algal blooms, and the looming threat of extinction for fish and wildlife species in the Bay-Delta and the Central Valley.”
“But instead of learning from the past, the Newsom administration is moving backward, embracing a new Delta tunnel that would increase already unsustainable levels of water diversion, hastening the Bay-Delta’s collapse and further harming diverse communities of people who depend on a healthy ecosystem. California can manage for both sustainable ecosystems and sustainable water supplies, but not by sinking billions of dollars into an environmentally damaging—and unnecessary—tunnel project that springs from a nineteenth-century approach to managing our state’s finite water resources,” Bobker said.
Delta’s worst-ever ecological crisis spurred by water diversions and exports
The lawsuit was filed at a time when the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary is in its worst ecological crisis in history, largely due to water exports and the oversubscription of water in California.
Sacramento River fall-run Chinook salmon salmon populations, along with the Klamath/Trinity salmon runs, have collapsed, resulting in the closure of ocean and river salmon fishing in California last year and probably again this year.
Massive water diversions south of the Delta to agribusiness oligarchs and water brokers and abysmal state and federal water management of reservoirs and Central Valley rivers have also pushed endangered Sacramento River winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon closer and closer to extinction.
Meanwhile, endangered Delta Smelt, an indicator species that demonstrates the health of the estuary ecosystem, are now virtually extinct in the wild. Zero Delta Smelt were collected in the CDFW’s Fall Midwater Trawl Survey for the sixth year in a row in 2023: www.dailykos.com/…
Once the most abundant species in the entire estuary, the Delta Smelt population has plummeted due to massive water diversions from the Delta, combined with toxics, water pollution and invasive species.
Disparaged as a “little minnow” by agribusiness oligarchs, Big Ag-owned politicians and right wing talking heads like Sean Hannity, the important role this fish plays in the ecosystem can’t be overemphasized.
”Delta Smelt are the thread that ties the Delta together with the river system,” said Caleen Sisk, Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “We all should understand how that affects all the water systems in the state. They are the irreplaceable thread that holds the Delta system together with Chinook salmon.”
The 2 to 3 inch fish, found only in the Delta, is an “indicator species” that shows the relative health of the San Francisco Bay/Delta ecosystem. The Delta smelt is listed as “endangered” under both the federal Endangered Species Act and the California Endangered Species Act.
When no Delta Smelt are found in six years of a survey that has been conducted since 1967, the estuary is in a serious ecological crisis
“No Delta Smelt were collected at any stations from September through November,” according to Erin Chappell, Regional Manager, Bay Delta Region-3 to Brooke Jacobs, CDFW Branch Chief, and other CDFW staff on December 21. “The 2023 September- November index (0) is tied with 2016 and 2018-2022 as the lowest index in FMWT history.”
She said the absence of Delta Smelt catch in the FMWT is “consistent among other surveys in the estuary.” For example, the Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM) survey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) caught only 5 Delta Smelt among 10 sampling weeks (between 9/4 and 11/10) comprised of 1,360 tows (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2023): nrm.dfg.ca.gov/...
The near-extinction of Delta Smelt in the wild is part of the larger Pelagic Organism Decline (POD) caused by massive water diversions from the Delta by the state and federal water projects, along with toxics, water pollution and invasive species.
Between 1967 and 2020, the state’s Fall Midwater Trawl abundance indices for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 100, 99.96, 67.9, 100, and 95%, respectively, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
Taken as five-year averages (1967-71 vs. 2016-20), the declines for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad are 98.1, 99.8, 99.8, 26.2, 99.3 and 94.3 percent, respectively.
Unfortunately, the CDFW hasn’t posted the results of the data for all of the pelagic fish species surveyed in the Fall Midwater Trawl. The latest data entry is from 2022: apps.wildlife.ca.gov/…
Unless the Gavin Newsom Administration changes direction, fish extinction and the destruction of a once robust, fish-filled estuary are likely to be his real “environmental legacy.”