By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California environmental groups have sued state and federal water managers, claiming that their drought-management plan for projects below the crucial Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is pushing some species of fish to the brink of extinction.
The lawsuit marks the latest salvo in the battle over water in California as the state suffers through its fourth year of a devastating drought that has prompted strict conservation measures.
"We bring this lawsuit in an effort to prevent the impending extinction of fisheries that thrived for millennia," Bill Jennings of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance said in a statement announcing the legal action, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento on Wednesday.
"We cannot stand aside and watch species go extinct simply because special interests have captured our regulatory agencies and they refuse to comply with laws enacted to protect fish and water quality," Jennings said.
The lawsuit seeks to block the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from enforcing emergency modifications to state and federal regulations to divert water from fisheries, waterways and crucial habitats to cities and farmers served by two water projects below the delta.
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation could not immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuit on Thursday morning.
Last month California water regulators approved a plan by some of the state's most senior water rights holders to voluntarily cut water use by 25 percent in exchange for assurances that they would not face further curtailments during the growing season.
Under the first-of-its-kind agreement, so-called riparian growers in the delta who participate agreed to either reduce water diversions by 25 percent or fallow one-quarter of their land.
Riparian land borders natural waterways such as rivers or streams and the roughly 4,000 growers with such farmland in the delta hold some of California's priority or most senior, and typically inalienable, water rights.
That deal comes as California considers curtailing water diversions to senior water rights holders in the state for the first time since the late 1970s.
The drought has prompted Governor Jerry Brown to impose the state's first-ever mandatory cutbacks in urban water use, up to 36 percent in some communities. Brown had been criticized for largely exempting agriculture from those severe restrictions.
California grows nearly half of all U.S. fruits and vegetables, mostly in the Central Valley, and ranks as the top farm state by annual value of agricultural products.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler)