Salton Sea Wins as Calif. Water Standoff Ends

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Imperial County and the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to settle a long-running dispute over a water transfer deal and its impacts on California’s vanishing Salton Sea.
     A three-judge panel with the Third Appellate District signed off on the agreement on May 26 – but not without harsh words for the parties involved for dragging on the litigation at the expense of the beleaguered Salton Sea.
     “After nearly 12 years of legal fisticuffs – at trial and on appeal in both state and Federal Court – the Imperial County agencies have apparently decided that cooperation will serve better than contention to address the continuing deterioration of the Salton Sea,” Judge Ronald Robie wrote for the panel.
     While commending the parties for finally agreeing to cooperate with each other, the panel slapped them for wasting time and “untold millions of dollars” litigating the issue.
     At the request of the Imperial County agencies, the panel dismissed all remaining appeals in the coordinated cases.
     Except for the Imperial Irrigation District, the irrigation districts “have the right to recover costs as prevailing parties in these appeals.”
     Imperial’s district agreed to waive its costs and pay the county $750,000 to dismiss pending appeals this past March, according to the Desert Sun newspaper.
     Judges M. Kathleen Butz and William Murray Jr. joined Robie on the panel.
     Steve Bilson, founder of erstwhile plaintiff Protect Our Water and Environmental Rights, expressed dissatisfaction with the agreement.
     “It encourages water agencies to do what they did out there – to wit – to take the water and litigate everyone to death,” he told Courthouse News in an email. “There is no incentive to do otherwise. All the $175 million-plus dollars in attorney’s fees, which ratepayers have to pay, changed nothing about the way water is just for the taking by the richest entity without considering our water reality.”
     “As the settlement says in its opening statement, it appears that this is how more than a decade of contentious litigation over the Quantification Settlement Agreement ends, ‘not with a bang, but a whimper,'” he added, quoting Friday’s settlement.
     In contrast, Michael Rood and Katherine Turner, Imperial County counsel, applauded the settlement.
     “Our board feels it’s a positive step forward to stop litigating and work on this with the Imperial Irrigation District,” Rood said in an interview.
     Turner pointed out that the county and irrigation district made a joint presentation to the State Water Resources Control Board in March, in which they worked together to urge the state to meet its obligations under the QSA to help restore the Salton Sea.
     “Overall, we are very concerned with the environmental situation at the Salton Sea and the ecological disaster that appears imminent” in light of water-allocation reductions that will take effect in 2017, Rood said.
     “The county is at a point where it needs to get help from the governor and State Water Resources Control Board” to stop that from happening, he added.
     They said they hoped to get the message out that they see how serious the situation is at the Salton Sea, and that they are getting along with the irrigation district and “working on making something happen.”
     The Imperial Irrigation District agreed the settlement is vital to the future health of the Salton Sea.
     “This settlement agreement sends a clear message that Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County are united in our efforts to advocate for a Salton Sea restoration plan,” said IID governmental affairs officer Antonio Ortega. “Today, the Salton Sea faces rapid decline and poses significant challenges not only to the environment and wildlife but also to the health of residents who live and work in the surrounding areas. With this in mind, we will continue to petition for a feasible restoration plan which can be implemented before mitigation water currently flowing to the sea stops at the end of 2017.”
     The matter stems from the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement, a collection of 12 agreements over the allocation of shares of Colorado River water among several California water agencies.
     Among other things, the QSA reduced California’s allocation of Colorado River water to its 4.4 million acre-foot entitlement, according to a pamphlet about the agreement issued by the San Diego Water Authority.
     An acre-foot of water is enough to cover an acre of land with water one-foot-deep – about 325,000 gallons – which is roughly how much two single-family homes use in one year, the pamphlet states.
     The QSA spawned numerous lawsuits, including one filed by Imperial County and several co-plaintiffs against the Imperial Irrigation District and the other water agencies that brokered the deal.
     Among other things, the plaintiffs claimed the QSA’s environmental studies did not include enough analysis on projected impacts to air quality in the Salton Sea area or on efforts to conserve the lake itself.
     Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly upheld the QSA and the irrigation districts’ right to approve it in June 2013.
     The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake, stretching across 350 square miles of Riverside and Imperial counties. It was created in 1905 when the Colorado River breached a canal and flooded the basin, which lies nearly 300 feet below sea level.
     Though saltier than the Pacific Ocean, the lake and surrounding area is home to several species of fish as well as migratory birds, kit foxes and bighorn sheep.
     Historically, the lake has been sustained by agricultural runoff, but has been shrinking in recent years as the water supply steadily decreases.
     Though the QSA calls for water inflows to the Salton Sea to decrease after 2017, it also created a joint powers authority comprised of several water districts that agreed to pay $133 million in 2003 dollars, roughly $375 million in total, to mitigate impacts of water transfers. $99 million was specifically set aside for restoration efforts at the Salton Sea, according to the San Diego Water Authority.
     Requests for comment to the other parties were not immediately returned.

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