NRDC Condemns Bush Administration Abandonment of California Water Plan

Environmentalists Question Role of Former Water Industry Lobbyist

SAN FRANCISCO (August 26, 2002) - Environmentalists are charging Interior Secretary Gale Norton with abandoning a widely supported California water plan. And they are calling on the Department of Interior to explain the role played by a former water industry lobbyist who now advises Norton on California water issues. At issue is the administration's controversial decision last week to quietly drop its appeal of a court ruling involving a critical component of the state's CalFed water plan.

At stake is the state-federal CalFed plan, which is designed to restore the San Francisco Bay-Delta and improve water supply reliability for California. Congress currently is considering legislation to authorize funding for the CalFed plan. However, a federal judge in Fresno ruled in February that federal regulators improperly allocated water to fish and wildlife. If upheld, the decision will reduce the amount of water available for protecting the environment. Environmentalists say that by withdrawing the government's appeal in the case, Secretary Norton is undermining the very cornerstone of the plan. The appeal was filed by the Department of Interior in May in a suit filed by Central Valley agribusiness interests in an attempt to weaken the CalFed plan.

"Secretary Norton is walking away from CalFed, even though she had pledged to support it," said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst for NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "This is another environmental rollback by the Bush administration, and it has serious consequences for California."

Norton's key staffer on CalFed issues is Jason Peltier, previously a longtime lobbyist for Central Valley agricultural interests. For over a decade, as the head of the Central Valley Project Water Association, Peltier led efforts to oppose federal water reform. Despite Peltier's efforts, President George Bush Sr. signed into law the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) in 1992. The CVPIA was a major overhaul of the federal project that delivers water to farmers and other California water users. It guaranteed that water would be made available for environmental protection. The Department of Interior wrote rules to implement the CVPIA, which serve as the foundation of the CalFed plan.

On October 31, 1992, the day after CVPIA became law, Peltier pledged in the San Francisco Chronicle, "We'll do anything and everything to keep from being harmed. If that means obstructing implementation [of the bill] so be it."

"We call on Secretary Norton to explain the role of former water lobbyist Jason Peltier in this decision to capitulate to his former clients," said Nelson. "If Peltier is behind this, then it means he is finally delivering on his decade-old promise to block implementation of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. Industry special interests should not be charged with protecting the environment."

The lawsuit in question was brought by the Westlands Water District, the largest and most powerful member of Peltier's former employer. It challenged complex water accounting rules that enable the Bureau of Reclamation, a Department of Interior agency, to track 800,000 acre-feet of water dedicated by the CVPIA to the restoration of the bay-delta and its fisheries. The rules were developed as part of the CalFed plan to protect fish from getting sucked into the massive state and federal water pumps in the delta. The Westlands lawsuit sought to force the bureau to count water that is delivered to farmers as water delivered to fish and wildlife.

If upheld, the decision by U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno will dramatically reduce the amount of water available for bay-delta restoration. But environmentalists say the damage could go beyond fish and wildlife; the ruling threatens no less than to bring down the carefully balanced CalFed program and its promise of reliable water supplies for the rest of the state. Under CalFed, urban and agricultural users get legal guarantees, which reduce the likelihood that unexpected fisheries problems in the delta will interrupt water supplies as they have in the past. The only reason that state and federal agencies can provide these guarantees in the first place is because CalFed allocates enough water for the environment. Without the environmental allocation, the whole deal unravels.

"Secretary Norton is risking a return of California's water wars, which would damage the state's economy and environment - exactly what CalFed was designed to avoid," said Nelson.

During the past eight years, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service jointly defended the implementation of the CVPIA from legal attacks from the Westlands Water District. However, in another clear indication of the new attitude of the Department of Interior, the Fish and Wildlife Service was not allowed to testify in court to defend the allocation of water for the environment. As a result, environmentalists say, this made it more likely that Judge Wanger would rule against the Department of Interior and throw out the accounting rules. The department has since announced that it will rewrite its rules to allocate more water to farmers and less to fish and wildlife.

NRDC and other environmental groups are appealing the ruling to the Ninth Circuit court of appeals.

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 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages

A Sound Plan for California's Bay-Delta Watershed