By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The federal government has been ordered to pay $2.4 million for breaching a water delivery contract with a group irrigators and other water users in California.
However, the award falls fall short of the roughly $25 million to $43 million in damages sought by the Stockton East Water District and the Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District.
The districts sued the federal government nearly a decade ago for failing to live up to deals reached in the early 1980s to deliver water from the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River.
Plaintiffs spent about $65 million on a water delivery system from the dam, but by the time they were ready to use it in the early 1990s, a new federal law required more water to be used for fish and wildlife habitat.
A federal judge agreed that the federal government had breached its contractual obligations, but found that the action was justified by environmental laws.
In 2009, a federal appeals court overturned that decision, ruling that the government was liable for violating the contracts because policy changes are within its control, unlike earthquakes, droughts or similar disasters.
The parties have since been litigating over the amount of damages owed to the water districts, with the plaintiffs seeking about $25 million to $43 million for reduced water deliveries, overhead costs and water replacement costs.
Alexis Stevens, an attorney for the Stockton East Water District, said her client hasn't yet decided whether to appeal the $2.4 million award.
However, the major point of the case was to prove the government's liability to ensure future water deliveries, Stevens said.
Since that aspect of the case was decided in 2009, the government has been fully allocating water to irrigators and other users, she said.
"That was the main victory the district wanted to accomplish and it did," Stevens said. "The damages are icing on the cake at this point."
An attorney for the Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District or a spokesperson for the government could not be reached by deadline.