Opponents of a controversial project to expand Pardee Reservoir scored a court victory last week when a judge ruled that the plan neglected to account for the area's environmental and cultural resources.
East Bay Municipal Utility District's 2040 Water Supply Management Plan outlines how it will provide drinking water to its growing number of customers and prepare for prolonged droughts. Environmental groups opposed to aspects of the plan argue that it would destroy a scenic waterway, remove a vital bridge and eliminate an ancestral gathering place for the Miwok tribe. The environmental report, approved by EBMUD in 2009, was thrown out by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley last week. Conservation groups who brought the case against EBMUD are celebrating the victory, but agree it's only a small part of a larger fight.
"It's a procedural victory, but a meaningful procedural victory," said Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River. "But the river is not saved."
Friends of the River, Foothill Conservancy, and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance are the three environmental agencies that challenged the district's plan in court.
EBMUD spokesman Charles Hardy declined to comment on the ruling and said the board of directors would discuss the issue internally. The board meets Tuesday, but not all of its directors will be present that day, Hardy said.
The board will likely discuss the issue during a closed session on May 10, Hardy said.
The district included in its 2040 plan its need to deliver water to 400,000 more customers than its current 1.4 million. Expanding Pardee Reservoir by roughly 1,000 acres and flooding 2 miles of the Mokelumne River was part of the district's plan. However, Frawley ruled that the district overlooked alternatives, such as partnering with another water district on another project.
"The strongest point the judge makes in his decision is that (EBMUD) didn't make a range of alternatives," said Chris Wright, executive director of the Foothill Conservancy.
The reservoir's expansion would also likely lead to the removal of the Middle Bar Bridge, a popular fishing spot and fire evacuation route for nearby residents. The district neglected to account for such a dilemma, the court ruled.
"The district should have identified the potential safety impact due to possible elimination of emergency evacuation routes and adopted at least a general mitigation measure to mitigate such impacts," Frawley wrote in his 36-page report.
The conservancy groups' case also took into consideration the tribe of Miwok natives, who use Black Willow tree branches to weave baskets. The trees would have been removed during Pardee's expansion. The court's ruling shows the district has more things to consider before moving forward, Wright said.
"The decision is really a game-changer in a lot of ways," he said. "It shows that the law does protect us, too."
Last week's ruling is the first part of a three-part decision coming from the court. In the coming weeks, the court will issue a formal decision likely directing EBMUD to set aside the certification of its environmental impact report for Pardee's expansion and approval of its 2040 plan.
Ideally, it will provide EBMUD an opportunity to find a water supply option less taxing to the environment than the Pardee expansion, Stork said.
"The ruling doesn't prevent EBMUD from choosing a bad project," Stork said. "It gives them the opportunity to revisit the issue with information that is less deceptive."
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.