Forty years ago, the Central Valley Project began delivering water to irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley from the new dams and reservoirs the federal Bureau of Reclamation operated on rivers flowing down the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. No one gave much thought then to the environmental effects the diversions would have over the years to water quality, soil conditions and fish and wildlife habitat. Today, the effects are obvious, especially within the context of the massive water transfers achieved by the expanded Central Valley Project along with the state Water Project.
But even with the benefit of hindsight, the Bureau of Reclamation and its parent, the Department of the Interior, are intent on recommitting the water to the very same sort of diversion for another 40 years as if it had learned nothing about the environment in the past four decades. At the direction of Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., the bureau has begun to issue new 40-year contracts for the sale of the same amounts of water to the same districts without conducting a formal environmental impact assessment.
The Lujan action is becoming increasingly unpopular, even within the Bush Administration. The secretary should stop the process and acknowledge that an environmental impact study is both reasonable and necessary under the law. The Environmental Protection Agency already has called for such a study. And now the White House Council on Environmental Quality has, too.
The council’s statement reached the logical conclusion that to commit such a vast amount of water--roughly 1.5 million acre-feet annually, nearly twice as much as the entire city of Los Angeles consumes--for another 40 years indeed does constitute a major federal action. That is the test for requiring the full, formal environmental study.
Lujan claims that federal law requires him to renew the contracts. But there is not necessarily a conflict between contract renewal and conducting the study. An environmental impact study outlines a number of alternate actions, assesses the potential environmental damage from each one, selects a favored course of action and proposes mitigation for any harmful effects. Mitigation might be stricter conservation measures or a shorter renewal term.
The Council on Environmental Quality cannot overturn Lujan’s action. The council basically serves as a referee when there is an environmental dispute between two federal agencies. But its opinion used to carry considerable weight with the White House and in Congress. There already is legislation in the House to bar the Bureau of Reclamation from executing any more contracts during the next year pending an environmental study. And a federal court in Sacramento has said any renewals will be subject to his final decision on whether an environmental impact statement is required.
Lujan could simplify the whole matter by rescinding his earlier order and conducting the study. A word from the White House that this is the right thing to do might help him make up his mind.