San Diego water deal upheld, Salton Sea fight continues


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A state appeals court Wednesday upheld the landmark water transfer between the Imperial Valley and San Diego County but left room for more legal wrangling regarding the Salton Sea.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a 2010 ruling by a Sacramento Superior Court judge that the water sale was improper because the Legislature had essentially signed a blank check to repair damage done to the Salton Sea.


So, the deal itself is now salvaged. But the same panel refused to decide the arguments that redirecting irrigation water to slake the thirst of San Diego decreases the amount of runoff into the sea, causing it to shrink. That, in turn, is imperiling birds and fish and creating toxic dust storms as ground laden with agricultural pesticides is suddenly exposed to the air.

Those arguments, the panel said, should go back to the Sacramento Superior Court, thus preserving the chances that opponents will be able to scuttle the deal between water-rich but cash-poor Imperial Irrigation District and the cash-rich but water-poor San Diego County Water Authority.

“This is obviously good news, and it’s been a long time coming,” said Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, “but there’s still considerable work to do in turning this agreement into one that is environmentally sustainable for the Salton Sea and economically viable for Imperial Valley agriculture.”

Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, noted that in water issues, perseverance is key. “We were confident we would persevere and prevail,” she said.

The deal, the largest transfer of water from farms to cities in the nation, was signed in 2003, after years of pressure on the Imperial Irrigation District by the federal government. The water sales have continued despite the Superior Court ruling that the Legislature lacked authority to make an open-ended agreement to save the sea.

Straddling Imperial and Riverside counties, the Salton Sea is dependent on agricultural runoff for replenishment. As more water is sold to San Diego rather than used to irrigate farms, runoff has decreased and the sea has shrunk.


The appeal court’s 156-page opinion could serve as a treatise on the complexities and feuding that are part of California’s use of the Colorado River. Its opening sentence tells the tale: “For the better part of 100 years, citizens of the American Southwest have been fighting over the right to water from the Colorado River.”

Imperial County enjoys the largest allocation of any agency in the seven states that depend on the Colorado River. Farmers were braving the valley’s boiling summer temperatures a century ago to pull water from the river, long before California coastal cities saw the river as a source of water.

San Diego County, blessed by nature with mild weather and a gorgeous landscape, is virtually devoid of groundwater. For nearly half a century San Diego officials have hunted for a way to get an “independent” supply of water and decrease the county’s dependence on the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Although the Legislature agreed in 2003 to help the Salton Sea, the state’s financial woes, and a lack of a political constituency for the sea in the power corridors of Sacramento, have largely kept the state from following through on its promise, a point that environmental lawyers are sure to make when the issue returns to the Superior Court.


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-- Tony Perry in San Diego