A view of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead shows canyon walls ringed with white mineral deposits indicating the drop in water levels, near Boulder City, Nevada. 

Following the Imperial Irrigation District’s recent win on a monumental water case in California’s appellate court against Michael Abatti, the water district is back in court filing the opening brief against the other large water district in Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District.

Last March, MWD took the unprecedented move to cut IID out of intrastate negotiations on the Drought Contingency Plan, promising to pay IID’s water bill to Lake Mead if water elevations shrank to 1,074 feet, triggering California’s response to the drought.

The Upper Basin states of the Colorado River — Wyoming, Montana, and Utah — and the Lower Basin States — Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and California — have been in multi-year negotiations to combat the longest drought in recent history and the effects it is having on the two Colorado River reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell. The federal Bureau of Reclamation oversaw the talks. Before the multi-state agreement could be ratified, the lower states had to agree internally on how much water they would keep in Mead by not drawing their full entitlement.

“The logic in going forward without IID was that the DCP couldn’t wait for the Salton Sea,” said Henry Martinez, IID general manager in a past press release. “This legal challenge is going to put that logic to the test and the focus will now be where it should have been all along — at the Salton Sea.”

IID’s petition alleges that MWD violated CEQA principles by committing to enter into agreements on behalf of itself and all other California contractors, which will require MWD to forgo diverting up to millions of acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River without considering how it will make up the shortfall.

“Metropolitan engaged in a prejudicial abuse of discretion and failed to proceed in the manner required by law,” Martinez said. MWD wrongly determined the DCP approvals were exempt from environmental laws, the suit said.

CEQA is a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible.

The MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger responded to  IID's opening brief in petition challenging DCP.

“The execution of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan was a historic accomplishment," Kightlinger said, "that required extensive, years-long collaboration and negotiation within and among California, Nevada and Arizona to prevent Lake Mead from reaching critically low levels by incentivizing water storage opportunities. During that negotiation, we worked closely with IID to ensure that the agreement has no adverse impacts on the Salton Sea, as the water contributions made to Lake Mead will not affect the amount of water flowing into the sea. 

“Over the last year, we’ve already seen what happens when we work together to protect the Colorado River. The Lower Basin states are conserving and storing more water than had been anticipated. Lake Mead is now 11 feet above the shortage level and Metropolitan has stored a record amount of water in the reservoir – nearly 1 million acre-feet. Instead of litigating to attempt to vacate the DCP, our efforts should be focused on ensuring its success, and building on our momentum as we begin negotiating the next set of operational guidelines and work as a Basin towards developing long-term solutions for Colorado River system resiliency.”

Without IID’s participation, the Bureau of Reclamation and state water officials, including California, signed the DCP March 19, effectively cutting out IID and its insistence that the Salton Sea be considered in any contract.

While IID worked to be a partner in the DCP process, the district cited Salton Sea environmental issues and lack of federal funding commitments for the California’s 10-year Salton Sea Management Plan would keep it from signing the intrastate contract.

The district maintained that the Salton Sea is an integral part of the Colorado River system and its decline presented a severe public health and environmental crisis for the Imperial and Coachella valleys and the State. The district balked at signing the federal Bureau of Land Management’s DCP with the Upper and Lower Colorado Basin states until the federal government matched California’s funding for the 10-year Salton Sea Management Plan. MWD usurped the IID’s stance by stating it would contribute IID’s 250 thousand acre-feet, effectively negating IID’s argument that the Salton Sea was a looming health hazard and the federal government needed to step to the plate with funds.

“As long as IID was part of the DCP, the Salton Sea would have been insulated from impacts because IID could have protected it,” said IID Board President Erik Ortega in an earlier press release. “But under this DCP, particularly now that MWD is calling the shots for California and acting on behalf of the rest of the Colorado River, the Salton Sea is truly on its own. That’s why IID is acting to preserve its rights — and the Salton Sea’s future — by filing this CEQA challenge.”

IID General Manager Henry Martinez traveled to a March 2019 MWD board meeting and told the board, “But I can tell you that it is seen in the Imperial Valley as a naked attempt to work around the environmental challenges posed by the Salton Sea.”  

“There is also nothing irrational or outrageous in IID’s call for a federal match in support of the State’s 10-year Salton Sea Management Plan. From our perspective, such a federal commitment is the single biggest impediment to a Lower Basin DCP that does what IID and all other Colorado River contractors need for it to do, which is to reduce the risk of reaching critical elevations at Lake Mead,” Martinez said at the same meeting.

Although the main thrust of the IID lawsuit against MWD is that the Los Angeles based water district didn’t take into consideration the environmental consequences to southern California of diverting millions of acre feet to Lake Mead, the IID challenged how the MWD could even supply that quantity of water to fulfill its contractual water obligation.

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