By Vicky Boyd

Woodbridge Irrigation District has filed suit against the East Bay Municipal Utility District, claiming the Bay Area water provider is withholding thousands of acre-feet of Mokelumne River water to which it is entitled.

Because the dispute involves a contract, Woodbridge sought a remedy in civil court rather than go before the State Water Resources Control Board, which typically hears water rights cases, said WID manager Andy Christensen.

At the center of the controversy is a 1965 agreement with the Bay Area district written when Camanche Reservoir was completed. EBMUD built and manages the reservoir.

Christensen said it is WID's belief that the district's water rights and licenses predating the reservoir are still intact and still have priority over the East Bay district's permit for Camanche.

"We want the court to interpret just what was meant by that agreement," he said. "We say the licenses still are in full effect, and we never gave up that right when we entered into the 1965 agreement."

The case, originally filed in San Joaquin Superior Court in January, was prompted after several years of unsuccessful negotiations with EBMUD.

"We can't sit back and not protect our growers," Christensen said. "Ag can't sit idly by and let their water rights go by the wayside."
The case has since been moved to Sacramento County Superior Court at the request of the Bay Area district.

Woodbridge Irrigation District holds water rights to about 60,000 acre-feet of Mokelumne River water that date back to 1886, when a predecessor – the privately held Mokelumne Ditch and Irrigation Co. – began diverting. The rights are considered pre-1914 and take priority over most other water users on the river.

Woodbridge was formed in 1924 and agreed to buy Stockton Mokelumne Canal Co., which at the time held the Mokelumne water rights, for about $246,000.

In 1927 and 1941, the state water board issued licenses that combined allowed WID to divert up to an additional 414 cubic feet per second from the Mokelumne when excess flow is available. (One CFS is equivalent to about 1.98 acre-feet per day.)

"If Pardee (Reservoir) is spilling, that's water that belongs to WID," Christensen said. "Our argument is they (EBMUD) should be passing that through. If we can put it to beneficial use, then we have a right to take it."

During an interim agreement from 1965 to 1988, EBMUD was to release up to 140,000 acre-feet of surface water annually for WID to use. That agreement expired in 1988, and EBMUD now releases only the 60,000 acre-feet mandated under the pre-1914 water right.

"Woodbridge contends that the parties' agreements in no way limit, waive or impair the current exercise of its full rights under License 5945 and License 8214...." the district said in its Jan. 29 court filing, referring to its 1928 and 1941 licenses, respectively.

In a written statement, EBMUD said, "Woodbridge Irrigation District and EBMUD are partners on the Mokelumne River. Together we worked to achieve a record salmon return last year. We have been and will continue to be partners in river management for years to come. Their lawsuit seeks court clarification of language in a 53-year-old water-sharing agreement between EBMUD and Woodbridge.

"EBMUD believes the agreement terms are clear and have long been recognized by the parties since the agreement took effect in 1965. We look forward to getting any necessary court clarification and resolving this issue. We will need to continue to work together managing flow and coordinating our operations on the Mokelumne River."

WID encompasses 40,000 acres from north Stockton to roughly Thornton, of which about 38,600 acres are irrigable and 13,900 acres are currently irrigated.

In addition to its main responsibility of providing irrigation to farmers, WID also supplies about 6,500 acre-feet of water to the city of Stockton and about 6,000 acre-feet to the city of Lodi. An acre-foot, or about 325,800 gallons, can meet the annual water needs of one to two families of four.

During the droughts of 1991, 1992 and 1994 and without the additional water included in the two water licenses, WID growers had to pump groundwater to supplement meager surface deliveries.

"In dry years, our growers have to pump water, and we have to pump water," Christensen said. "We have to work a lot harder to stretch our water supply."

He said the district felt compelled to file the suit because it wants to ensure it can meet future water obligations.

Several growers, for example, have already approached the district about converting from groundwater to surface water in light of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. That legislation, passed in 2014, requires water basins to balance groundwater extraction with recharge by 2040.

The first Sacramento County Superior Court hearing is scheduled for June 27, but Christensen said he doesn't expect a ruling until at least late this year.