By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A federal appeals court has refused to order the U.S. Interior Department to provide adequate drainage for some irrigators in California or pay them monetary damages.
The Firebaugh Canal Water District and Central California Irrigation District have been litigating with the agency over drainage issues for more than two decades.
The controversy relates to the construction in the 1960s of the San Luis Unit of California's Central Valley Project, which provides irrigation water for roughly 500,000 acres.
Expansion of irrigation in the region necessitated more drainage of polluted water, as clay layers beneath some farmland prevented it from seeping away.
Plans to release the water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta never materialized due to environmental concerns, and drainage into a national wildlife refuge reservoir was halted in the 1980s because excess selenium levels were harming waterfowl.
Farmers negatively affected by the buildup of poor quality water sued the Interior Department, which manages the irrigation project.
The most recent ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals deals with their claims that the agency violated tort and administrative laws by failing to sufficiently drain the water.
While the Interior Department is required to drain farmland in the San Luis Unit, the agency "is neither withholding or unnecessarily delaying drainage within the Unit," the 9th Circuit has held.
The ruling found that the agency has been working toward an alternative mode of drainage but progress has been slow due to spending limits imposed by Congress.
"Those obstacles are not, by and large, a product of Interior's inaction," the 9th Circuit said.
The Interior Department also isn't liable for tort damages because it's within the agency's discretion to provide irrigation water without fully draining it, the ruling said.
"There is, to be sure, some point at which Interior's actions could become so sluggish that we could rightly say that the agency has entirely abandoned its legal duty to provide drainage within the San Luis Unit. The record before us does not now support that conclusion," the 9th Circuit said.