Court considers Colorado River water agreement


Issue Date: December 7, 2011
By Kate Campbell

Further disruption to California's already-unreliable water supply could result from a state appeals court decision related to a 2003 agreement on the Colorado River. The case involves the seven-state Quantification Settlement Agreement and restoration of the Salton Sea.

As attorneys were arguing the complex case in a Sacramento appellate court last week, an Assembly budget subcommittee held a hearing to take comments on future options for managing the sea.

The QSA compact includes 13 separate contracts, including California's pledge to live within its 4.4 million acre-foot right to Colorado River water and the Imperial Irrigation District agreement to transfer 200,000 acre-feet of farm water to the San Diego County Water Authority for urban uses.

The 3rd Appellate District Court panel will review a lower court ruling that the QSA contract to restore the Salton Sea amounts to an unconstitutional "blank check." The lower court found the agreement obligates the state to cover restoration expenses, no matter the cost.

A decision from the appellate court is expected within three months. Meanwhile, a stay is in place that permits continued transfer of farm water to San Diego County.

Salton Sea restoration, which has been estimated to cost as much as $9 billion, would aim to improve the lake's water quality and enhance wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.

There also is concern about preventing further environmental hazards created by a shrinking sea: increased dust and air pollution from the exposed seabed, poor water quality, and fish and wildlife die-offs.

"There are so many aspects of the water transfer agreement that are impacting agricultural water use and crop production in the Imperial Valley, it's hard to know where to start explaining," Imperial County Farm Bureau President Mark McBroom said.

What's happening now, McBroom said, is that the unknowns at the time the QSA was signed are becoming known, and revealing some negative consequences.

McBroom said that the Imperial Irrigation District signed the water transfer agreement under pressure, without knowing fully what was being agreed to because many details had not been defined.

"Now we know, for example, that local farmers and the irrigation district are required to do on-farm conservation, yet the money to do this from transfer fees won't be coming in until after 2017. The money for capital improvements isn't front-end loaded to help finance these conservation projects," he said.

That aspect of the contractual arrangement puts a burden on local farmers and the irrigation district, he said.

The water conservation and transfer agreements call for ramping up water deliveries to 277,700 acre-feet of water a year, with 200,000 acre-feet to be obtained through water conservation measures. In 2012, the transfer amount is anticipated to be about 170,000 acre-feet, currently achieved through taking farmland out of production.

"The issue of fallowing needs to be re-examined," McBroom said. "At this point, fallowing is probably the least expensive form of conservation, but from an agricultural perspective, it's not sustainable. The money for fallowing isn't going back to the farmers in a form that allows for new investment. It's just a way to compensate for lost crop revenues."

If the appellate court found the QSA unconstitutional and it had to be rewritten, McBroom said those kinds of issues would be looked at.

"As far as I'm concerned, the QSA must be rewritten," he said.

While the water transfer agreement is the cornerstone of the QSA, the agreement also recognizes that water transferred out of the Imperial Valley is water that doesn't flow to the Salton Sea through the valley's system of agricultural drains. The sea is shrinking and salinity levels are rising.

The Imperial County Farm Bureau has numerous concerns about future impacts from the QSA, Farm Bureau executive director Linsey Dale said, including "our fear of an environmental disaster at the Salton Sea."

"Any shadow being cast over California's water supply reliability on the Colorado River because of potential liabilities on the Salton Sea is a serious concern for all Californians, no matter where they are in the state," said Justin Fredrickson, environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "Our entire water system is linked together, and more weak links in the supply chain do not favor anyone. These issues must be resolved. There's simply too much at stake."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.