By Audrey Cooper
September 3, 2004
Two San Joaquin County water agencies can move forward with their $500 million lawsuit against a federal agency blamed for promising water supplies that were never delivered, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
Court of Federal Claims Judge Christine Odell Cook Miller denied a request by government attorneys to throw out the lawsuit filed earlier this year by the Stockton East Water District and Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District.
Local water officials said Miller berated government attorneys for trying to delay the trial, which will focus on whether the water agencies have suffered a financial loss for water they were promised but never received.
Miller also said she hoped a trial would be put on an expedited schedule, local officials said. The trial could happen early next year and may be held in California, said Jeanne Zolezzi, an attorney for the water agencies.
“We’re just thrilled. We thought we would have to jump through a few more of these hoops before we got a trial. Now it looks like the judge wants this to move along,” Zolezzi said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that doles out water supplies from New Melones Lake, declined to comment on the importance of Thursday’s decision. But spokesman Jeff McCracken noted that “the judge obviously wants to hear the case.”
The water agencies’ lawsuit claims the Bureau of Reclamation’s failure to deliver the much- needed water amounts to an unconstitutional “taking” of the water district’s property—that is, the promised water.
The two districts made a deal with the Bureau of Reclamation in 1983 for about 155,000 acre-feet of water a year, or enough to meet the annual needs of about 775,000 people. That water was supposed to flow from New Melones Lake, but the water districts in some years never received a drop. The water that was never delivered over the past decade is also worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the water districts’ lawsuit.
As part of the contract for the water deliveries, the federal government also required the agencies to build the $65 million Goodwin Tunnel, which carries water from New Melones and the Stanislaus River to eastern San Joaquin County.
Thursday’s hearing was the first on the lawsuit.