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YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Enviro group sues county over Conaway

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February 4, 2011 | Leave Comment

Local environmentalists are suing Yolo County, saying supervisors signed a deal with Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos over Conaway Ranch without considering the environment.

The Citizens Alliance for Regional Environmental Sustainability, or CARES, filed the lawsuit in Yolo County Superior Court last week, said Davis lawyer Don Mooney, who’s representing the group. Mooney declined to say who was in the group or how many were in it.

The suit pushes the court to void the deal, which OKs the sale of 80,000 acre feet of water between now and 2033 to Metropolitan Water District, a Southern California water supplier. An acre-foot of water supplies one to two households with enough water for a year, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Sucking that much water out of the Sacramento River “would obviously have environmental impacts,” said Pam Nieberg, member of the alliance.

“There’s only a certain amount of water in the Sacramento River,” she added. “That goes to the delta. That feeds the delta. The delta’s already in crisis. There’s a lot of ramifications for transferring (water).”

And state law requires the county to study the effects the deal would have on the environment, Mooney said.  That includes water transfers. “It’s that simple.”

However, the county faced pressure to close the deal at the end of last year. Developer Tsakopoulos was in the process of buying a controlling share in Conaway Preservation Group through his company, Tri-City Water and Farm. He had to reach a deal with Conaway by Dec. 31 or forfeit payments he’d already made.

The quick timeframe didn’t allow the county to do the proper analysis, so “they just kind of took a shortcut,” Mooney said.

The deal also allows Tsakopoulos to duck under the county’s two-year moratorium on habitat damage projects, land preserved to offset the destruction caused by developers. In the agreement, the county frees Tsakopoulos to sell land rights to 6,000 acres, or more than one-third of the property. Converting what are now rice farms into habitat could cripple the local rice industry, Nieberg said, and the county should examine the effects before signing off.

The alliance is “confused,” because by law, Tsakopoulos doesn’t need the county to sign off on anything, said Phil Pogledich, senior deputy county counsel. The county isn’t approving the transfer of water. It never had the ability to regulate water sales off the ranch, which is the purview of the state. Therefore, the responsibility of studying the environmental harm that may result is not the county’s responsibility.

“We’re not approving the water transfers themselves,” he said. “We do not have the authority. That’s a matter for the state alone.”

Same goes for the habitat damage projects. The county’s moratorium applies, but the state, through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, wants to lower the Fremont Weir and flood the Yolo Bypass more often and for a greater period of the year. The floodplain would create ideal habitat for a variety of threatened fish species, according to the plan. The state can override the county, a point both the county’s and Tsakopoulos’ lawyers have agreed.

So basically the agreement between the county and Tsakopoulos spells out things that already are, Pogledich said, things the county has little to no control over. Moreover, there’s no project proposed in the agreement, so there’s nothing to study. The county’s giving an unnecessary blessing, not approving an actual project that’s on the table.

Studying the pros and cons to the environment, he said, “is just way too premature.”

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