A judge has ruled that state water managers in drought-stricken California must consider the environmental impacts of running one of the nation's largest water banks.
The Department of Water Resources never looked at the full ecological effects of running the Kern Water Bank when the state transferred the bank to private hands in 1997 and must redo its environmental analysis, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley ruled Thursday.
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California is in the midst of a withering drought, and those who have water stored in the vast underground bank have been tapping those supplies since most above-ground reservoirs are far below their normal levels.
A group of environmentalists and farmers sued the bank and the state near the end of the last major drought, in 2010, saying that running the bank was causing lasting damage to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and would spur unsustainable urban growth. They also accused California officials of backing a deal that allows private companies to control and profit from the bank's reservoir, which originally was built with public funds to store water for use during dry spells.
The judge said he would not make a ruling about the transfer and gave no specific timetable for when the department should finish its new analysis. In the meantime, the bank will be allowed to keep operating as usual.
"We appreciate that the court agreed with us that the environmental review was faulty," said Adam Keats, a San Francisco-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The bank gets to keep on doing what they are doing, which is really troubling, so we intend to appeal."
The Department of Water Resources and officials with the bank did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
Major water users in agricultural Kern County gained control of the Kern bank in the mid-1990s, after a round of negotiations with the state. Their position was that the state had shorted rural areas in allotting water in a previous drought.
To avoid potential litigation from unhappy water users, state officials ceded ownership of the Kern Water Bank — developed with $74 million from the department and $23 million in taxpayer-approved bonds — to a local water agency. In return, water users gave back 45,000 acre-feet from the amount they contracted to receive each year.
Ownership of the bank ultimately was transferred to a joint powers authority including the local water agency, and numerous powerful water districts.
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