Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, May 20, 2020


Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185,
Robert Wright, attorney for Restore the Delta and Planning and Conservation League, (916) 873-5258,

California Lawsuit Challenges Federal Water Contracts That Imperil Delta, Fish, Wildlife

SACRAMENTO— Three environmental groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation today to dispute the award of permanent federal water contracts to water users supplied by the Central Valley Project.

The Central Valley Project is one of the world’s largest water storage and delivery systems. It includes 20 reservoirs, about 500 miles of canals and aqueducts, and two pumping plants. The project has caused widespread environmental damage by reducing freshwater flows in the San Francisco Bay-Delta, blocking salmon migration and killing wildlife with toxic runoff from irrigated farmland.

Such diversions “reduce freshwater flows through the Delta causing and worsening harmful algal blooms (HABs) which threaten the public health of those drinking, fishing in, or swimming in, Delta waters, or inhaling the air near Delta waters,” the complaint states.

Today’s lawsuit, brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Restore the Delta and Planning and Conservation League, challenges the Trump administration’s moves to make permanent 14 existing short-term Central Valley Project contracts and ongoing work to convert dozens of others.

The converted water contracts lock in federal water deliveries to large agricultural water users with no consideration of the environmental consequences of making the contracts permanent. The recipients include Westlands Water District, which serves about 600,000 acres on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side. Westlands, the Central Valley Project’s largest customer, uses about as much water as the entire state of New Hampshire.

“It is ridiculous that Reclamation would support a scheme to award permanent water contracts to water districts as drought conditions return to California,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta. “Big industrial irrigation districts like Westlands are the last in line for water rights, but are trying to ensure that they can take all the water they desire from the imperiled Bay-Delta estuary.”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt represented Westlands in legal disputes challenging environmental limitations on Westlands’ Central Valley Project water when he was a partner at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Although much of the farmland served by Westlands is poorly drained and will need to be retired from production, a new contract awarded by Interior in February commits the federal government to provide Westlands’ historical contract allocation in perpetuity.

“Interior’s sweetheart deal with Westlands is great news for billionaires and industrial agriculture, but the Delta, salmon and migratory birds will all suffer,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Bernhardt is personally delivering on the Trump administration’s promise to maximize Central Valley Project water deliveries, regardless of the environmental costs.”

The groups filed today’s suit in federal district court for the Eastern District of California.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

center locations