QSA lawsuit: Judge gets water-deal case affecting Salton Sea

Receding Salton Sea shoreline
photo by Mark Sigmon

SACRAMENTO — A lawsuit over a water agreement that could hasten the shrinking of the Salton Sea is in the hands of a judge.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly heard final arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit over the Quantification Settlement Agreement, a 2003 deal on how water agencies share supplies from the Colorado River, U-T San Diego reports.

The QSA was designed to help end arguments over the river, the West’s most important, most partitioned water source, but it’s been in litigation since 2004.

Imperial County authorities claim regional water brokers skirted environmental laws to obtain the hard-fought agreement, which limited the amount of water California can draw from the river and green-lighted the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer in U.S. history, with up to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year flowing from Imperial Valley farmlands to San Diego County for 75 years. A reduced amount of water also comes to the Coachella Valley as part of the deal.

As a condition of the QSA, Imperial Irrigation District agreed to flow water into the Salton Sea for 15 years to make up for the reduced runoff. The water was intended as a stopgap until a state-approved Salton Sea restoration plan was put into place. The state’s failure to act means IID will shut off that water spigot to the sea on Jan. 1, 2018, resulting in a sudden, dramatic reduction in size, ultimately exposing more than 140 square miles of lake bottom sediments to the desert wind.

Under the QSA, the state was to pay all costs for necessary Salton Sea mitigation related to the water transfer beyond $133 million covered by regional water agencies. But a judge in 2010 ruled that provision of the QSA violated the state constitution because it leaves the state exposed to potentially unlimited costs. The State Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s ruling in December 2011, essentially saying whether to pay mitigation costs still rests with the Legislature, which would have to appropriate the money.

Connelly could order new environmental studies or even toss out the entire agreement. A decision is expected later this year.