Courts put huge California water pact in limbo

AP News
Posted: Nov 20, 2011 2:48 PM
Courts put huge California water pact in limbo

A landmark accord that ended decades of acrimony over how Southern California gets its water is in jeopardy.

A California appeals court is considering whether to overturn a 2003 pact that created the nation's largest farm-to-city water transfer and set new rules for dividing the state's share of the Colorado River. If a lower court ruling stands, consequences could ripple to six other Western states and Mexico, which also rely on the 1,450-mile river that flows from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez.

Farmers and environmentalists involved in the lawsuit argue the pact is deeply flawed, while water agencies say it is critical to keeping an uneasy peace on the river. A three-judge panel of the 3rd Appellate District in Sacramento will hear arguments Monday and is expected to rule within three months.

California long used more of the Colorado River than it was granted under agreements with Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico. Its overindulgence was never a big problem until Sunbelt cities like Phoenix witnessed explosive growth and other states clamored for their full share. Drought only exacerbated tensions.

Eight years of negotiations between California's warring water agencies culminated in the 2003 accord that reined the state to its limit established 80 years earlier of 4.4 million acre-feet of water a year _ enough to supply about 9 million homes. The centerpiece called for California's Imperial Valley _ a farming region that gets nearly 20 percent of the entire river _ to sell water to San Diego.

The prospect of the pact unraveling has left some of California's neighbors worried that hostilities could resume and ricochet throughout the West.

"A stable California is good for the river," said John Entsminger, senior deputy general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies 2 million people in Las Vegas and surrounding areas. "Any sort of destabilization in California and their water picture would potentially be problematic for the other states."

In January 2010, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Roland Candee gutted the pact in a sweeping, 52-page ruling that said the state of California _ one of the signatories _ violated its constitution by essentially writing a blank check to restore the rapidly shrinking Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley. California's largest lake is more than 200 feet below sea level and relies on water that seeps down from nearby farms. The sale of water to San Diego further threatens the lake's future.

The judge ruled that a state law committing California to save the lake no matter the cost set a dangerous precedent for the government to pledge money to other projects it couldn't afford. The administration of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pegged the cost of saving the Salton Sea at a whopping $9 billion.

The state's dire fiscal straits offer little hope for the lake, whose rapidly receding shores are layered with dead fish.

"It's the 800-pound gorilla in the closet," said Malissa McKeith, a lawyer for Imperial Valley landowners who are challenging the pact. "If we don't fix it now, you're just going to have so much of a bigger problem in 10 years."

McKeith, like other critics of the pact, said California failed to adequately consider alternatives to the farm-to-city water transfer _ like requiring low-flow toilets _ when it recognized in the 1990s that it would have to go on a water diet.

The legal issues are highly complex, but the stakes and passions are high. The pact, which remains in effect while the case is under appeal, has already brought big changes in California.

It remains controversial in the Imperial Valley, a major grower of spinach, lettuce and other winter vegetables that has the nation's highest unemployment rate. Eight years after the Imperial Irrigation District board approved the pact in a 3-2 vote, critics say water sales to San Diego have failed to bring enough benefits to the region of 175,000 people. They worry that the Salton Sea's receding shores will worsen the region's air quality.

"There may not be enough money to take care of the liabilities of the Salton Sea, and Imperial Valley basically gets stuck with the blowing dust," said John Pierre Menvielle, a member of the local water board and a third-generation farmer who opposed the 2003 pact from the start.

The water transfers have made the San Diego area less dependent on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a behemoth that serves nearly 19 million people and was virtually San Diego's only source of water in the early 1990s.

Under the pact, two Southern California canals were lined with a combined 60 miles of concrete to prevent seepage. The San Diego County Water Authority and the state of California shared the $448 million cost, with the captured water going to San Diego.

Dennis Cushman, the San Diego County Water Authority's assistant general manager, said the pact has given his agency's 3.1 million customers more reliable water sources.

The agreement "was central to giving people some certainty _ maybe not everything they hoped for or they wanted, but they got certainty over a significant portion of their water supply and their economic future," Cushman said.