Why Is California Giving More Water to Golf Courses Than Wildlife?

A Southern California water district is giving golf courses 25-year contracts but only 1-year deals to a wildlife preserve that shelters millions of birds and dozens of protected species, environmentalists claim in court.


Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley claims the Eastern Municipal Water District and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's plans could decimate the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, one of few areas in the semi-arid region with water for birds.

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Waterfowl, wading birds and quail are some of the many animals found at the the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, California's first state wildlife area to utilize reclaimed water to enhance its wetlands. (image: California Department of Fish & Wildlife)

On June 17 the defendants approved an amendment to a 1987 recycled water agreement, claiming it would supply "adequate, dependable and affordable source of recycled water to the San Jacinto Wildlife Area," the environmental group says in its August 24 complaint in Riverside County Court.

California owns and manages the wildlife area under the 1987 agreement, in which it agreed to develop and manage it as mitigation for wildlife losses from construction on a nearby state water project.

San Jacinto Wildlife Area "has developed into the most significant state wildlife area in southern California as substantial wildlife habitat has been developed by the department supporting abundant resident and migratory wildlife," the plaintiffs say.

A Courthouse News reporter who visited the preserve at dusk saw hundreds of thousands of birds arriving, departing and nesting for the night. The area is in an immense dry plain between the Santa Ana Mountains to the west and the San Jacinto range to the east. The Great California Desert begins on the eastern side of the San Jacintos.

In 2003, the area was designated a principal reserve in the Western Riverside County Municipal Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP). More than 65 of the 146 species of plants and animals protected by the plan are found on the preserve, including 25 species of raptors and three threatened and endangered plants: San Jacinto crownscale, spreading navarretia, and thread-leaved brodiaea.

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Thread-leaved brodiaea is a California endangered plant species, also listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Only around 100 natural occurrences of this species that are presumed to still exist. (image: California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

The environmentalists say the wildlife preserve is just as important as the region's dozens of golf courses. But rather than renew the contract for 25 years, the defendants gave it just two 1-year extensions, in 2014 and 2015.

This "leaves the wildlife area with no adequate, dependable and affordable source of water," with significant direct, indirect and cumulative effects on the environment, the group says.

Eastern Municipal granted long-term recycled water contracts to farmers and golf courses, "which will very soon preclude the wildlife area from obtaining its reserved 4,500 AFY [acre-feet per year] of recycled water," the lawsuit states.

The environmentalists say the water district and the state used a word game to duck their responsibilities under the California Environmental Quality Act.

They said the amendment was not a "project," as defined by CEQA, "in spite of having substantial evidence before them that the whole of the 2015 agreement was an action which has the potential for resulting in a direct physical change in the environment and a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment and may have a significant effect on the environment pursuant to Guidelines § 15065."

They added: "The direct impact will curtail delivery of recycled water to wetland dependent habitats (freshwater marsh, riparian areas, vernal pools, etc.) and indirectly impact numerous MSHCP plants and animals (Least Bell's vireo, San Jacinto crownscale) defendant on those wetland habitats."

San Jacinto Wildlife Area, 80 miles east of Los Angeles, spans 19,000 acres, with 9,000 acres of restored wetlands. It is the first state wildlife area to use reclaimed water to enhance its wetlands.

Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley, a nonprofit launched in 1991, works to influence a wide variety of land use, transportation, management and water issues that affect the San Jacinto Wildlife Area and the northern San Jacinto Valley.

Co-plaintiff Albert Pualek is a retired wildlife biologist and was manager of the wildlife area from 1991 to 2006.

Eastern Municipal was organized as municipal water district in 1950 for the primary purpose of importing Colorado River water to its service area, in western Riverside County, to augment local water supplies.

The parties did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday. The plaintiffs seek to vacate and set aside all approvals of the project. They are represented by Susan Nash of Idyllwild.

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