A 2003 water pact between the Imperial Valley and San Diego County was supposed to be good for both parties, and for California.
But the agreement — billed as the largest sale of water from farms to cities in the nation — is snared in litigation and the outcome is uncertain. No sooner had the pact been signed than it came under attack by environmentalists, farmers and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors.
One major point of contention is that the Salton Sea could become saltier and shrink if farmers reduce agricultural runoff into the sea because water is being sold to San Diego County. If the sea recedes further and becomes more saline, it could lead to massive fish die-offs, endanger migratory fowl and result in toxic dust storms.
The state Legislature, to help finalize the water deal, had promised to help fund restoration of the sea, but budget constraints have made that impossible.
Unless the state follows through on that promise, officials in San Diego and the Imperial Valley worry that the water deal could be struck down by the courts. If that happens, Southern California may be forced to seek more water from Northern California — the most incendiary issue in the state's historic water wars.
Last year a Sacramento judge ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to sign an open-ended contract to save the Salton Sea, which could cost billions. An appeals court is set to hear arguments Nov. 21.
But even if the ruling is overturned, the water deal remains in jeopardy, officials said.
Some are concerned that another round of court action is likely to center on the state's refusal or inability to restore the Salton Sea, which would compound its environmental problems if water sales continue.
The deal "is in peril because the state failed to fulfill its obligation," said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.
The 75-year pact allows the water-rich Imperial Irrigation District to transfer some of its mammoth share of the Colorado River to the San Diego County Water Authority via the Colorado Aqueduct owned by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
After the judge ruled against the water deal, a stay allowed water sales to continue until all legal issues are resolved. So San Diego County continues to get its water, and Imperial County continues to get its money.
A third of the Imperial Irrigation District's water operations budget, which pays for maintaining the All-American Canal and hundreds of miles of branch waterways and pumping stations, comes from water payments made by San Diego.
More than a third of the water that San Diego distributes to local agencies comes from the water transfer agreement and two related agreements. Those water sales are slated to increase over the years.
How San Diego would replace Imperial's water and how Imperial would replace San Diego's payments if the deal is struck down is unclear. Each has become dependent on the other.
In Imperial County, where agriculture is the dominant industry and the water pact has always been controversial, a major case of sellers' remorse has set in.
The Imperial Irrigation District governing board approved the deal on a 3-2 vote after years of arm-twisting by the federal government, including a threat by the Department of the Interior to take the water for free unless the district agreed to sell some of it to San Diego.
None of the three board members who voted in favor of the deal are still in office.
The board member who, after months of indecision, provided the swing vote was defeated for reelection by John Pierre Menvielle, a third-generation Imperial Valley farmer who ran on an anti-water-deal platform.
Menvielle has now quit active farming to concentrate on getting a better deal for the Imperial Valley and guarding against outside pressures that he fears could bankrupt local farmers. He still seethes over the way the federal government forced the district to let fields lie fallow so water could be shifted to San Diego.
"Basically there was a gun held to our head," he said. "We got hoodwinked into this thing."
Like many farmers, he's worried that the state or federal government will eventually demand that the Imperial Valley share more of the financial burden for saving the Salton Sea.
"The 18 million people on the coast could care less if the Imperial Valley dries up — that way they could get the water for free," he said.
The San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District have petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to lift a requirement that water be sent directly into the Salton Sea. That requirement, the agencies argued, was meant only to "buy time" until the state's plan for the Salton Sea was implemented.
Out of 480,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley, about 5,800 are being fallowed to save water to sell to San Diego; the district has had no trouble finding farmers willing to fallow land in exchange for per-acre payments. In coming years, fallowing is set to increase to nearly 30,000 acres.
Under the deal, fallowing would continue for another decade. After that, water will be saved through installation of expensive water-conservation equipment; Menvielle and others worry that the cost of that equipment will be shifted to the farmers.
To look for its own Plan B in the event the water deal dies, the Imperial board has hired one of the nation's top water lawyers, Charles DuMars, a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico law school.
Even by the standards of other Western water cases, DuMars said, the dispute over the Imperial district's share of the Colorado River is complex in its details and intense in its passions.
Imperial Valley's share of the river — greater than that of any other agency or state that uses the river — comes from a principle in water law called "first in time, first in right."
Farmers in the valley were pulling water from the Colorado in the early 1900s — long before the rise of modern Los Angeles and San Diego and the thirsty suburbs in between.
"It's more than just water, it's cultural," DuMars said of the dispute. "To most people in Southern California, water is something that comes out of the tap. In the Imperial Valley, it's the lifeblood of the people."