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September 18, 2021  |  Written by Andrew M. Hitchings

Federal District Court Denies Environmental Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction Regarding Sacramento River Valley Groundwater Program

On September 14, 2021, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California denied preliminary injunctive relief requested by three environmental advocacy groups (Plaintiffs) seeking to bar the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from providing funding for a voluntary groundwater extraction program (Program) seeking to incentivize the use of groundwater supplies in lieu of surface water diversions from the Sacramento River.  The denial follows a court hearing held on September 9, 2021.

Plaintiffs sought preliminary injunctive relief after Reclamation issued an Environmental Assessment (EA) and a subsequent Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) determining that no environmental impact statement was needed for the Program under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The court explained that in order to obtain a preliminary injunction, a moving party must demonstrate (1) that its claim is likely to succeed on the merits, (2) it is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, (3) that the balance of equities tips in its favor, and (4) an injunction is in the public interest (citing Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008).).

The court ruled that Plaintiffs were unable to show a likelihood of success on the merits, noting that Reclamation’s EA and FONSI were not deficient or improper under NEPA or Administrative Procedure Act requirements.

Plaintiffs relied on declarations to support their claim that land subsidence and aquifer depletion would result from the Program.  In assessing whether Plaintiffs adequately demonstrated the likelihood of irreparable harm in the absence of relief, the court said it “expect[s] more than the kind of vague generalizations and unquantified conclusions presented here.”  The court also noted that Plaintiffs alleged ecological damage from groundwater extraction “in conclusory terms” not sufficient to demonstrate imminent harm to species or ecosystems.

The court concluded that the harm forecasted by Plaintiffs from additional groundwater pumping was “largely speculative” and that Reclamation was acting in the public interest by seeking to “deal as best it can with the critical problem of too little water to meet the essential needs of all of the users in the Sacramento River Valley.”  In addressing the fourth prong, the court noted the importance of implementing the Program “as soon as possible to reduce the amount of surface water being used during a period of serious drought” and held “the balance of equities and public interest appear to weigh against the issuance of an injunction.”  Ultimately, the court ruled that because the Plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden on any of the injunctive relief factors, their motion for a preliminary injunction is denied.

The district court’s order is available here.  For additional information on this matter, please contact Andrew Hitchings at ahitchings@somachlaw.com.  Conor O’Brien is a contributing author and fall Law Clerk with Somach Simmons & Dunn.  He can be reached at cobrien@somachlaw.com.

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