FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - Officials fighting plans by the state to build two giant tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to send water south took their case to court Thursday, seeking to block one of the project’s main backers from finalizing a key land deal.
San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties say Metropolitan Water District of Southern California failed to perform environmental reviews before entering into a $175 million deal to buy sprawling delta islands east of San Francisco.
The struggle for control of the delta stems from its vital role supplying water to vast farmlands and millions of Californians as far south as San Diego.
Metropolitan, Southern California’s largest water provider, says it may use the 20,000 acres to pile earth dug from the tunnels project and store large construction equipment. It may also use the land to restore wildlife habitat and bolster delta levies, among other possibilities.
Opponents say Metropolitan has taken brazen steps to avoid meeting environmental requirements in the fragile delta.
“The idea that you can come in and turn these islands into tidal wetlands, that sounds great,” said San Joaquin County Counsel Mark Miles. “But the creation of those tidal wetlands has impacts on the surrounding islands.”
Metropolitan is buying the delta islands from Zurich Insurance Group. The deal was signed this month, but it is not final.
It also comes as Gov. Jerry Brown seeks regulatory approval to build two giant tunnels costing and estimated $15.7 billion to send river water under the delta and relieve harm to endangered fish.
Officials from the two counties filed the challenge in the San Joaquin County Superior Court along with local irrigation districts and environmental groups.
Metropolitan attorney Catherine Stites said that while possible uses for the land are being considered, the district hasn’t formally decided how it will be used, making the court challenge premature.
“There’s a whole host of possibilities that justify Metropolitan buying this property,” she said. “None of them have been selected yet.”
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