By Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer
March 29, 2011 12:00 AM

A federal appeals court is sticking with its earlier decision that the government is liable for water promised but often not delivered to the Stockton area.

The recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals Federal Circuit in Washington likely clears the way for a new round of hearings that could result in millions of dollars in damages for two Stockton-area water districts.

Those water districts sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1993 for failing to deliver water from New Melones Lake – water for which the districts had signed contracts 10 years earlier.

18-year lawsuit

Some key dates in Stockton-area water officials’ battle against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation:
1983: Recognizing that groundwater levels are falling and more surface water is needed for farms and cities, two Stockton-area water districts sign contracts with the bureau for water from New Melones Lake, on the Stanislaus River.

1992: The districts complete construction of a system to take that water, including the $65 million Goodwin Tunnel.

1993: The districts sue the bureau for failing to deliver water.

2006: Trial is held. Court rules against districts.

2009: Appeals court overturns ruling, sides with districts.

March 2011: The same appeals court rejects the government’s request to reconsider, likely clearing the way for hearings on damages.

A $65 million tunnel to convey the water from New Melones was constructed and is still being paid off.
But only in recent years have deliveries become more reliable.

The districts initially lost their lawsuit but won on appeal. The government asked the court to reconsider, and now the court has declined to do so.

The only remaining option for the federal government is to petition the U.S. Supreme Court, said Jennifer Spaletta, an attorney representing the water districts. Otherwise the case will be remanded to trial court for consideration of damages, she said.

Stockton East Water District and Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District had to buy water from other districts to make up for lack of dependable water from New Melones, she said. And landowners were forced to rely more heavily on the county’s depleted groundwater supply.

“We’re not surprised” about the latest decision, Spaletta said Monday. “We’re obviously relieved, because it was a year of waiting. … We’re very excited about moving forward.”

The Bureau of Reclamation did not immediately say whether it would petition the Supreme Court