November 03, 2008
By Alex Breitler November 03, 2008 Record Staff Writer STOCKTON –
Stockton East Water District v. United States of America. Sounds like a mismatch.
But Stockton-area water officials said they like their chances of successfully appealing a lower court’s ruling that the federal government was justified in withholding water – even though $65 million was spent to get the water to the area.
Stockton East and the Central San Joaquin Water District in 1983 agreed to contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for water from New Melones Lake, on the Stanislaus River.
Stockton has struggled for decades to find additional sources of water, because groundwater is declining and less water from the Calaveras River may be available in the future.
Local officials built a tunnel to convey Stanislaus water to the Stockton area – a debt that still is being paid through a nearly $3,000 fee attached to the cost of each new home in the city.
And yet, the bureau has rarely delivered the full amount of water promised in the contracts.
Some years the districts get no water at all.
The water districts sued, seeking $500 million in damages. A U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge in 2007 sided with the government; drought conditions and new laws requiring more water for fish in the Stanislaus River justified the lack of deliveries to Stockton.
The districts appealed, and the case was heard earlier this month by a panel of three federal judges.
“The districts remain hopeful that the court will order the U.S. to keep those promises made in 1983,” said Jennifer Spaletta, an attorney representing Stockton East.
She told the panel that the contracts required the government to use “all reasonable means” to guard against water shortages.
The bureau released water downstream for environmental purposes, yet “tremendous” amounts of water were still available in New Melones following the early drought.
“The reservoir was overflowing,” she said.
Kathryn Kovacs, an attorney for the government, argued that the risk of a shortage fell on the shoulders of the districts, as long as the bureau did everything it could. Reservoir managers had to keep water in the lake in case a dry winter would cause the pool to drop the following year, she said.
“Even if everybody does everything they can, shortages may occur,” she said.
Mark Madison, director of Stockton’s Municipal Utilities Department, said despite the water shortages the tunnel was not a waste of money. It’s been used to take water from other irrigation districts.
“Without those facilities, this area would have had major difficulty in meeting water demands even today,” Madison said. “That was a worthwhile investment on our part.”
Spaletta said a decision from the appeal judges is expected in three to six months.