As the Westlands Water District moves to permanently lock in its contract for Central Valley Project deliveries currently subject to two-year renewals, Trinity County has joined San Joaquin County in filing a formal legal response to the massive water district’s litigation seeking to validate its claims in the Fresno County Superior Court.
The Trinity County Board of Supervisors considered the matter in a closed session added to its Dec. 17 agenda after finding the need to take immediate action came to the attention of the board after its agenda was posted.
County Counsel Margaret Long later reported that the matter came to the county’s attention on Dec. 13 and required a response by Dec. 16 or the county would lose its ability to participate. She said San Joaquin County “was kind enough to allow us to join on their answer, which I authorized under my authority as County Counsel.”
The matter was brought as an emergency item to the board on Dec. 17 at which time she said the board ratified the decision to join and confirmed Trinity County’s desire to be involved in the litigation.
The sprawling 600,000-acre Westlands Water District has had water service contracts with the Central Valley Project since 1963, but they were subject to renewal under the Bureau of Reclamation with the possibility of renegotiation every two years.
The district has now filed for court validation of a permanent repayment contract instead, allowed under a new Trump administration law, that would lock in terms including the delivery of 1.15 million acre-feet of water per year in perpetuity in exchange for the district’s repayment of federal funds spent to develop the water storage and delivery infrastructure. That amount is estimated at $320.5 million that Westlands owes the federal government.
In their 22-page response filed jointly in Fresno County Court, San Joaquin and Trinity counties strongly objected to the “broad relief” sought by Westlands despite the district’s failure to address longstanding drainage problems and ongoing uncertainties about the water baseline for current and future uses.
They argued that validating the Westland’s proposal for a permanent contract “would create major risks for other water users and uses far beyond Westlands’ own service area, including the counties served by the Delta and the Trinity River.”
They noted the proposed 1.15 million acre-feet of CVP water “unreasonably relies on stale water needs data” and that historically, deliveries within the CVP have generally been much lower. Lacking current assessments of major factors constraining deliveries, they said Westlands, and other districts that may follow its lead, will be more likely to plant permanent crops and support development at unsustainable levels without addressing consequences to other uses.
Specifically, San Joaquin County concerns involve discharge of toxic water into the San Joaquin River from the south, while proposed water conveyance under the Delta from the north would divert clean water under rather than through the Delta. The feared result is harm to the Delta from selenium build-up coming out of Westlands without adequate clean water from the north to dilute it.
The counties’ response noted that the Trinity River environment has already suffered significant degradation as a result of CVP diversions, “largely to facilitate deliveries to Westlands. The broad judgment proposed by Westlands in the validation action could be construed to foreclose future challenges by the counties to actions by Westlands which will harm the Delta and Trinity River watershed, and, as a consequence, agriculture, recreation, fisheries, wildlife, water quality, and senior and tribal water rights in the counties.”
Further comments regarding impacts specific to Trinity County noted that the Trinity River is a critical watershed of origin for the Central Valley Project that has been drastically affected by damming and water diversions, largely to facilitate deliveries to Westlands, resulting in destruction of river habitats that supported once-abundant fish populations and other major difficulties with over-subscribed water claims.
The response concluded that “the judgment Westlands seeks, making Westlands’ contract requirements permanent while avoiding these long-term problems, would harm the county’s beneficial uses of water and protection of its natural resources.”
A water and salmon policy analyst for Save California Salmon, Tom Stokely said he informed Trinity Sup. Keith Groves about the Westlands court filing just a week before responses were due in Fresno County Superior Court. The court action had been publicly noticed in a Fresno newspaper, but did take some interested parties by surprise, he said.
Given the short timeframe for Trinity County to respond, Stokely said, “It was impressive that they filed on that Westlands contract.”