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U.S. sues California over river flow standards

U.S. sues California over river flow standards
In a lawsuit, the federal government says California's new flow standards for the Stanislaus River will interfere with operation of the New Melones Dam and reservoir. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The federal government Thursday added to the pile of lawsuits challenging new state requirements to boost river flows in order to help struggling fish populations.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, which manages California’s largest irrigation supply project, argues that the flow standards will interfere with its operation of the New Melones Dam and reservoir on the Stanislaus River.

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The federal complaint, filed in both state and federal court, is the 11th lawsuit launched against the State Water Resources Control Board since it voted in December to require greater flows in the Stanislaus and two other tributaries of the San Joaquin River.

Like the other lawsuits, the new Interior complaint argues that the board did not adequately analyze effects of the new rules under the California Environmental Quality Act.

“The environmental analysis by the California State Water Resources Control Board hid the true impacts of their plan and could put substantial operational constraints on the Department of the Interior’s ability to effectively operate the New Melones Dam, which plays a critical role in flood control, irrigation, and power generation in the Sacramento region,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeffrey Bossert Clark said in a statement.

State water board attorneys said they could not comment on the litigation.

Nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed by groups on all sides. Conservation groups argue that the standards aren’t strong enough, while users of river water say they will force draconian cuts to their supplies.

The litigation was expected because the new state standards represent an unprecedented move to reduce river use by San Francisco and some of the oldest farm irrigation districts in California.

Indeed, opponents argued last year that if the board adopted stronger flow requirements, it would start a years-long legal war.

To avert that, state officials are trying to negotiate settlements that would relax the flow requirements if water users agree to significant habitat restoration that would increase salmon populations.

The Interior lawsuit marks another skirmish in the ongoing battle between California and the Trump administration over environmental regulations.

In a separate matter, the water board is expected to vote next week on rules that would strengthen state protections for wetlands and seasonal streams that will lose federal protections under a rollback of the Clean Water Act.

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