Groups Sue Reclamation Against Groundwater Pumping Plans in North Valley

By Dan Bacher | 

Chico, CA. — On August 26, three environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal District Court challenging the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over extra groundwater pumping plans by Sacramento River water districts that they say will harm local domestic and agricultural users, the Sacramento River, streams and ecosystems.  

The filing of the suit by AquAlliance, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, and the California Water Impact Network was followed on Wednesday, September 1, by a motion for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO). At stake is an estimated 60,000 acre feet of groundwater, according to AquAlliance Executive Director Barbara Vlamis. 

If you want to listen to the TRO hearing, here is the information. Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021 at 1:30 PM (PT): Any participants not appearing and arguing before the Court may listen to the proceedings by calling into the public line using the instructions which will be available on the public calendar section of the court's website at for Judge Shubb's Sept. 7, 2021 calendar.

The named participants in the Extra Groundwater Pumping Program include Anderson Cottonwood WD, Glenn-Colusa ID, Princeton-Codora-Glenn ID, Provident ID, Reclamation District No. 108, Reclamation District No. 1004, River Garden Farms and Sycamore Mutual WC.

Reclamation concluded that the proposed action in the EA would have no significant impact on the human environment.

“In assessing the appropriate level of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review, Reclamation determined the Proposed Action is not likely to have significant effects,” the Assessment found. “In considering whether the effects of the Proposed Action are significant, Reclamation analyzed the affected environment and degree of the effects of the action.” 

“The Proposed Action will occur within existing facilities and there would be no effects to the following resources: aesthetics; geology, soils, & mineral Resources; land use; population & housing; transportation & traffic; recreation; hazards & hazardous materials; cultural resources; public services & utilities,” Reclamation claimed.

The groups strongly disagree with Reclamation’s Finding of No Significant Impact. (FNSOO). The lawsuit asks the court to declare Reclamation’s Environmental Assessment invalid and issue a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to stop the project that the plaintiffs say will harm local domestic and agricultural users, the Sacramento River, streams, and ecosystems. 

The motion for a TRO and/or preliminary injunction notes that “groundwater and groundwater dependent people and resources are already severely impacted” in the Sacramento Valley. 

“BOR grossly failed its statutory mandates under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) to disclose and consider the Project’s effects prior to approval, and prior to irreversible effects occurring,” the groups allege.  

“To have the federal government enable the abuse of groundwater by river water-rich Settlement Contractors, particularly in a critically dry year, is heinous,” said Vlamis. “The Extra Groundwater Pumping Plan pits Sacramento River water right users against groundwater-reliant neighbors and habitats that are already struggling. To represent the people and environment, we had to pursue our legal options.”

The groups said that with the knowledge of California’s climate and history, “Reclamation failed to prepare for the dry year before us.”

“The districts are hammering already taxed local groundwater basins during the serious 2021 drought, because they don’t want to accept cuts in river water deliveries even though their 25% cut is much less than those other users have experienced,” according to the groups. “However, the same districts have enough river water to sell to south-of-Delta interests.” (see table below)

“If Reclamation hadn’t released so much water from Shasta Reservoir in April and May this year, there would have been more in storage for critical flows for salmon and Delta farmers,” said Bill Jennings, Executive Director/Chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA). 

Total Keswick Dam water releases in April were 352,673 acre-feet of water and 509,160 acre feet in May, a total of 861,833 acre-feet during the two months, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Northern CVP Water Temperature Plan.

This has been a disastrous year for imperiled Sacramento River salmon. The California Department of Fish and Game (CDFW) has forecasted that “nearly all” of the juvenile winter-run Chinook hatched on the Sacramento River this year could die before spawning, due to disease spurred by warm water conditions below Keswick Dam:

A record run of over 18,000 endangered spring-run Chinook salmon on Butte Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River, has also turned into disaster as 14,500 fish have  died before spawning. These fish also have perished due to the outbreak of disease in warm, low water conditions:…  

On June 1, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Water Impact Network (CWIN), and Save California Salmon (SCS) presented an alternative water temperature management plan to the State Water Resources Control Board  that would have resulted in more carryover storage to protect fish, water and people over the winter. However, the water board failed to consider the alternative and approved the Bureau’s environmentally destructive water temperature management plan:

The August 31 update to the CVP/SWP drought assessment forecasts that by November 1 there will only be 728,000 acre feet of storage left in Shasta Lake, 691,000 acre feet in Oroville and 169,000 acre feet in Folsom Lake.

“We are in uncharted territory,” emphasized Jennings. “We have never had this little storage in the reservoirs. Cities, farms and fish are all screwed. This is substantially worse than 1977.”    

The plaintiffs are represented by the Aqua Terra Aeris law firm.

Table of participants in the Extra Groundwater Pumping Program

All named participants in the Extra Groundwater Pumping Program also plan to transfer water to south-of-the-Delta users in 2021. District 

Water to sell south-of-Delta (possible af) * 

Extra Groundwater Pumping potential (af) ** 

Anderson Cottonwood WD



Glenn-Colusa ID



Princeton-Codora-Glenn ID



Provident ID



Reclamation District No. 108



Reclamation District No. 1004



River Garden Farms



Sycamore Mutual WC



* Numbers are found in the 2020 Long-Term Water Transfer Program FEIS/EIR. Each district’s

total acre-feet are unknown for 2021.

** Reclamation asserts the total acre-feet will not exceed 60,000.   

USGS: Increased Pumping in California’s Central Valley During Drought Worsens Groundwater Quality

The urgency of the AquAlliance lawsuit was underlined by the release of a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that reveals that intensive pumping of aquifers during drought can speed up deterioration of groundwater quality.  

The study "Critical aquifer overdraft accelerates degradation of groundwater quality in California’s Central Valley during drought" is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

“The results highlight clean drinking water supply vulnerabilities in California and other western states currently experiencing record drought conditions,” according to the USGS. 

“Water quality problems from legacy groundwater pollution could get worse, faster, when pumping increases during drought,” said Dr. Zeno Levy, a research geologist with the USGS. “This could lead to more public drinking-water wells being shut down if costly treatment or cleaner water sources to mix with are not available.”

The agency said researchers examined 30 years of data from California’s Central Valley to find increasing nitrate concentrations at public drinking-water wells were more prevalent in areas where groundwater levels dropped rapidly during drought.

“Nitrate is a contaminant from fertilizer typically present at elevated concentrations in shallow groundwater throughout the Central Valley due to decades of agricultural land use. Scientists found that increased pumping from wells during drought can pull shallow, contaminated groundwater down to depths commonly tapped for public drinking-water supply,” the study stated.

Previous groundwater research has focused on the risk of wells being overdrawn and running dry during drought.

“The new study provides a major advancement to understanding the related consequences to water quality caused by over pumping,” the USGS wrote. “The study is unique in that it looked at regional linkages between groundwater use and quality, rather than local patterns at the scale of individual wells.”

This research was undertaken as part of a cooperative effort between the USGS and the California State Water Resources Control Board’s Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment Program. 

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