A 31-year battle to get more water for 1.3 million East Bay customers was declared over yesterday on the banks of the Sacramento River, averting the threat of severe water shortages during a drought.
Officials from the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and Sacramento County signed an agreement that forms a new water authority, financed and managed by the two agencies.
Skirmishes may still lie ahead because of a lawsuit filed by 63 agencies to block the project. However, environmentalists and officials from the utility district and Sacramento praised the new Freeport Regional Water Authority project for protecting the American River while ensuring water supply during drought years.
"It's a huge deal," said EBMUD spokesman Charles Hardy. "This really is a model of what's going to have to happen in California."
Under the agreement, the utility district will pay $439 million for pipes and other facilities and could divert as much as 100 million gallons of water a day from the Sacramento River, south of where it is joined by the American River. Sacramento County will pay $251 million as its share.
In addition, central Sacramento County and Elk Grove water customers would get as much as 85 million gallons of water a day to supplement their underground water supply.
EBMUD, which draws its high-quality snowmelt water from the Mokelumne River, has tried for decades to get a supplemental supply for its customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties to use during drought years. In 1970, it got a contract from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to draw 134 million gallons of water daily from the American River but was able to tap it only during the mid-1970s drought.
Environmentalists and Sacramento County sued to fight diversions from the American River, which is less-developed than the Sacramento River. Sacramento draws its water from the American, but it is mostly a wild river that serves as a popular and scenic recreation site.
In 1989, a judge confirmed the utility district's right to take water from the river, but its efforts were thwarted by political infighting and environmental opposition for more than another decade.
"It's a very good outcome," East Bay environmentalist David Nesmith said of yesterday's agreement. "If you're going to take water (from a river) it's a much better place. We're very pleased and we'd like other water agencies to begin to work together more closely to solve problems that all of us face in California in terms of drought."
Don Nottoli, chairman of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, said the project will protect the American River while bringing more water to both Sacramento and East Bay users.
"I think this really does present a real positive solution," Nottoli said. "Hopefully, time will prove it out."
The new agency must still deal with the lawsuit filed last year by 63 water districts, including the Contra Costa Water District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District. The suit says it does not want water diverted from the Sacramento River location until water quality, cost and reliability questions have been revised. A trial date is scheduled for June.
Contra Costa Water District spokesman Al Donner said there are concerns that the project will worsen water quality by diverting water upstream of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where it draws water for its 400,000 customers.
"We want those impacts analyzed, and if there is an impact we want to make sure it's mitigated," Donner said.
EBMUD officials say the issues will be addressed through environmental reviews. If the project proceeds as planned, the utility district could start drawing water in 2006, and Sacramento County in 2010.