A decision by a federal appeals court Wednesday could allow for changes in water deliveries to irrigation districts that hold senior rights to Sacramento River supplies.
The unanimous opinion by an 11-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned two previous rulings that found the federal government lacked discretion to alter water contracts with senior irrigators in the Sacramento Valley.
The new decision sends the matter back to a district court for further consideration, leaving both sides in the nearly decade-old case unsure of the ultimate outcome.
"It doesn't change things on the ground today," said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. However, he added, it could ultimately mean modifying the contracts to encourage conservation or adopt delivery schedules that would leave more water in the system at key times for salmon migration and delta smelt movement.
The resources council is one of several environmental groups that sued the federal government over its 2005 renewal of the long-term water contracts. The organizations contend that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation should have weighed the effects of the river diversions on endangered fish species in the downstream Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and altered the contracts to lessen the environmental impact.
Under a 1964 agreement, the irrigation districts — known as the Settlement Contractors — are collectively entitled to annually divert 2.2 million acre-feet of water from the Sacramento River in all but the driest years. That is enough to supply 4.4 million households.
"We're disappointed with the decision. We've been going at this case now for a long time," said Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the largest of the senior rights holders. It was unclear, he said, whether the opinion would reopen the contracts or force future changes.
Although delta exports to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California cities by junior government water projects have been restricted to protect fish, Glenn-Colusa and other upstream diverters with senior rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys have escaped similar cuts.
The appeals panel concluded Wednesday that the reclamation bureau should have consulted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when it renewed the Sacramento River contracts because "it retained 'some discretion' to act in a manner that would benefit the delta smelt."
Even if the original contracts locked water quantities in place, "the bureau could benefit the delta smelt by renegotiating the Settlement Contracts' terms with regard to … their pricing scheme or the timing of water distribution," Judge Milan Smith Jr. wrote.