NRDC: Court Unanimously Agrees Feds Unlawfully Renewed Unsustainable Water Supply Contracts in the Bay-Delta

April 17, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO (April 16, 2014) — SAN FRANCISCO (April 16, 2014) — A unanimous eleven-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today overturned two earlier court rulings that upheld the federal government’s renewal of several dozen long-term water supply contracts for diversions from the Bay-Delta ecosystem in 2004 and 2005. The court sided with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), California Trout, San Francisco Baykeeper, Friends of the River and The Bay Institute, concluding that renewal of these water supply contracts by the Bureau of Reclamation violated the Endangered Species Act. NRDC, Earthjustice and Altshuler Berzon LLP represented the environmental groups.

Following is a statement from Doug Obegi, NRDC staff attorney:

“The unanimous ruling by the court today recognizes that promising more water than can safely be delivered from the Bay-Delta is bad for water users and long-term water supply. We need to reform water supply contracts to ensure that they are compatible with a sustainable water future for the Delta and all its water users.

“Today’s decision opens the door to the Bureau of Reclamation revising water contracts to include  more equitable allocation amounts, stronger pricing terms, enhanced water conservation requirements, and other changes to protect and restore the health of this magnificent estuary, and the thousands of fishing jobs and numerous communities that depend on its health. 

“While today’s court ruling will not change conditions in the Bay-Delta this year, it provides an opportunity for a better tomorrow.”


Today’s ruling stems from a lawsuit initially filed in 2005 (an amended complaint was filed in 2008) contesting the renewal of these water supply contracts. These water supply contracts collectively promise more than 2 million acre feet of water diversions each year.  However, the State has already determined that there are water rights for much more water than actually exists in the Bay-Delta system in an average year, and numerous scientific reviews have concluded that unsustainable levels of water diversions from the Bay-Delta harm the health of the water system and contribute to the decline of salmon and other native fisheries in the watershed.

Today’s court ruling does not affect operations of the Central Valley Project or State Water Project this year, nor does it affect water deliveries under the existing contracts this year.  Even if the amounts of water promised under the contracts do not change, the court specifically noted that changing the pricing terms or the timing of water deliveries under the contracts could benefit endangered fisheries and the health of the estuary.

To read the court opinion:

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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