Suit Challenged Environmental Group's First Amendment Right to Free Speech
SACRAMENTO, CA (July 9, 2003) -- A federal judge has ruled that California's largest irrigation district can't sue environmentalists for writing comments opposing a proposed water contract. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton dismissed a lawsuit brought by an arm of the Westlands Water District against NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) over a letter to the U.S. Department of Interior. In the letter, the group charged that a proposed government contract to deliver water to Westlands would come at the expense of fish and wildlife.
"This is a resounding victory and affirmation of the public's First Amendment right to criticize government actions," said NRDC attorney Michael Wall. "However, NRDC remains concerned that the Bush administration's long-term water contract proposals will harm the environment, impair California's water supply and violate federal law."
The Westlands lawsuit sought a court judgment that the proposed contracts comply with federal law, and it requested that NRDC pay Westlands' costs for bringing the case. But in his opinion, Judge Karlton ruled that there was nothing to sue over because the proposed contracts haven't yet been finalized. He also wrote that to allow the suit to go forward could "have precisely the sort of chilling effect" that the First Amendment to the Constitution was designed to prevent.
In a friend of the court brief, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer wrote that the Westlands lawsuit against NRDC was a classic SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), which is illegal in California courts.
The judge's ruling was a setback for Westlands' few hundred growers, who get taxpayer subsidized water to irrigate approximately 1,000 square miles on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The district has a long history of suing other water users to gain a greater share of California's limited water supply. The latest suit is part of a disturbing pattern of reckless litigation, according to NRDC.
"During the past ten years, Westlands has launched legal assaults against virtually every water interest in California," said Wall. "This includes other growers, environmental protections, urban water users, Native American tribes, fishermen and the state-federal CalFed program to restore San Francisco Bay and provide clean, reliable water supplies for the state."
"Unfortunately, the Bush administration has encouraged Westlands' irresponsible litigation by entering into sweetheart deals with the district," Wall continued.
Last December, the administration agreed to settle a lawsuit in which Westlands demanded that the government dispose of the district's salty and toxin-laden irrigation drainage water. The government agreed to pay Westlands more than $100 million to retire 33,000 acres of drainage-impaired land, a deal that was criticized by environmentalists and California's entire Congressional delegation. The deal allowed Westlands to keep ownership of the retired land and all of the water currently used to irrigate it.
NRDC warned that future settlements sought by Westlands could further harm the environment, divert funding from state water programs and jeopardize water supplies and quality for other Californians.
"Westlands' lawsuits and sweetheart settlements are undermining the decade-long effort by California and the federal government to resolve water issues through communication and collaboration," said Wall. "Westlands' actions threaten to reignite California's water wars."
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.