State Supreme Court sides with Southern California in epic water war over delta islands

The state Supreme Court has cleared the way for Southern California’s powerful Metropolitan Water District to buy five islands at the epicenter of the delta’s water system, officials said Friday.

Some officials and environmentalists in Northern California had fought to halt the sale, worried about what the MWD planned to do with the land. The agency has said it might use some of the land to provide access for the construction of a proposed delta tunnel system, a controversial project some oppose amid California’s five-year drought.

A cohort of counties, water agencies and environmental advocacy groups had mounted a series of legal challenges aimed at postponing the sale. But the high court on Thursday turned those back, allowing the MWD to proceed with its $175-million purchase of the farm islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

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An MWD spokesman reiterated Friday that the agency has not proposed a project for the land. In the past, the district has said the 20,000 acres could be converted to fish and wildlife habitat or used to store materials for emergency levee repairs.

They have also said the islands could be used to provide access for the construction of the tunnel system, which would carry Sacramento River water under the delta to the pumping operations that send supplies south.

Two of the islands are in the path of the proposed $15-billion tunnel system, a project that MWD supports. MWD ownership of the islands would eliminate the need for eminent domain proceedings and provide easy access for construction crews on part of the project route.

Opponents of the tunnels have expressed numerous objections, including the effect on the environment and concerns about tourism and the agricultural economy. 

MWD officials said Friday that they still face several lawsuits connected to the island purchase. At least one of the suits claims a breach of contract, and others argue that MWD should have been required to prepare an environmental impact report beforecompleting the purchase.

 The California Environmental Quality Act lawsuits seek to unwind the deal and ultimately force MWD to give the islands back to Delta Wetlands Properties.

Thursday’s Supreme Court order does not toss out the original lawsuit filed by San Joaquin County to block the sale. It simply allows the island purchase to move forward while that case and others play themselves out.

It could be months or even years until all the legal challenges to the purchase are resolved, officials said. 

In court documents, lawyers for San Joaquin County and the advocacy group Food and Water Watch accused MWD of attempting to skirt the California Environmental Quality Act to “prematurely facilitate Delta exports” to the Southland.

They argued that the purchase was “an issue of great public importance” requiring the court’s attention.

Brett Spencer Jolley, an attorney representing San Joaquin County did not return a phone message seeking comment on the ruling. Jolley told the Sacramento Bee that the county had every reason to oppose Metropolitan’s land purchase because the tunnels would be used “to export more water to Southern California.”

A divided MWD board approved the island buy in March, with representatives of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and the San Diego County Water Authority voting no. The land is owned by a private company that for years has tried to develop a water storage project on the property. 

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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