Ah, San Diego: great weather, a zoo with adorable panda bears, sandy beaches, turquoise swimming pools -- and very little water. Unlike other arid Southwestern cities, San Diego doesn’t have an aquifer to draw its drinking water from, so it imports about 80 percent of it. For many years, L.A.’s Metropolitan Water District supplied most of that water. But a policy that would allow L.A. to cut San Diego's supply by 50 percent during drought has always made the city uneasy.
For years, San Diego has been looking for ways to wean itself off L.A's supply, and in the 1990s, the city began eyeing the Colorado River, which is diverted through the desert in a series of huge concrete canals to the Imperial Valley, where about 80 percent of the country’s winter vegetables are grown. The valley is a heavy-hitter in the water world, with rights to one-fifth of the Colorado’s flow. In 2003, under immense pressure from the feds, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell some of that water to San Diego. But Imperial County officials worried the water transfers would hasten the demise of the Salton Sea, and sued after the deal was inked. Now, a recent ruling should put much of the dispute to rest, allowing the largest rural to urban water transfer in U.S. history to continue.
Legally, California is allowed to take 4.4 million acre-feet from the Colorado, but for many years the state sucked more than that. Upstream states didn’t mind, as they weren’t using their entire allocations. But that changed around the millennium, when, as Ed Marston reported in 2001, “the other states, growing larger and thirstier with each passing year, worried that they would never get to use their full apportionments of the Colorado if California's use became institutionalized.”
So the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation rolled out the “4.4 plan,” designed to shrink California’s take of the Colorado back to its legal share. The plan called for lining the All-American Canal, which carries Colorado River water to Southern California, and sending the "reclaimed" water to cities. Cutting water use in the Imperial Valley, rather than in urban areas, was another major part of the plan, as Matt Jenkins wrote in 2003:
In order to reduce its use of the Colorado without leaving urban residents dry, California has been scrambling to work out a series of conservation measures and farm-to-city water transfers. Under the terms of the plan, negotiated by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Department would wean California off the surplus Colorado River water slowly, over 15 years — if California could line up the water transfers by Dec. 31, 2002. If California couldn’t work it out, Babbitt and then his successor, Gale Norton, vowed to cut off the state from surplus water at the stroke of midnight.
And on New Year’s Eve, as California water agencies futilely struggled to finalize a crucial deal, Norton did just that, slashing California’s cut of the Colorado River by over 700,000 acre-feet, enough water for 1.6 million households.
The dramatic New Year’s cutoff worked. Later that year, the Imperial Irrigation District signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, agreeing to send 200,000 acre-feet of water per year to San Diego for the next 75 years, or about 9 percent of its total Colorado River allotment. To meet the terms of the deal, Imperial Valley farmers fallowed some 36,000 acres of farmland.
But the water transfer, and accompanying efficiency measures, had an unexpected consequence: They accelerated the demise of the Salton Sea, a 381-square-mile lake created in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal and fed only by continued leaks. The Salton Sea has become an important stop for migratory birds and a home to trailer parks and the wacky retirees that inhabit them. As Terry Greene Sterling reported in 2008:
The Sea's elevation has dropped over one foot in the past five years, the Pacific Institute says, and exposed about 3,500 acres of lakebed. Once the water transfers take full effect in 2018, it's expected to shrink by about 40 percent.
Here's the problem: If the Sea is allowed to dry without treatment, it will generate 17 tons of unhealthy dust a day, according to the Pacific Institute. Winds pebbled with stinking salty sand will sicken asthmatics, children and the elderly. Crops in the nation's winter salad bowl - the Imperial Valley - will be harmed. In short, if nothing is done to restore the Salton Sea by 2018, we'll all feel the fallout.
So the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and other plaintiffs sued, arguing the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA, violated state environmental rules. In 2009, a judge agreed with the plaintiffs, but that decision was later overturned on appeal. The case finally made it to the Sacramento County Superior Court, where in June, Judge Lloyd Connelly upheld the 2003 agreement.
San Diego’s water authority was thrilled; General Manager Maureen Stapleton told the L.A. Times the decision is “landmark victory in San Diego’s historic quest for a more reliable water supply.”
Up in the Imperial Valley, the mood was more somber. "Regardless of how the judge ruled, all parties to the agreement need to acknowledge that the Salton Sea is suffering, and its continued deterioration poses great risks in the future to the environment and public health,” Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, wrote in a statement.
As uncertain as the future of the Sea is, Colorado River users may have a bigger problem on their hands: over-allocation. Last December, the Bureau of Reclamation released a report predicting water demand will soon outstrip supply, due to drought, climate change and increased growth in the Southwest. In May, water districts, environmental groups, farmers and tribal members met in San Diego to discuss a way forward. The Imperial Irrigation District participated in the meeting, but made one thing very clear: no more rural to urban water transfers.
“We like to farm," Tina Shields, Colorado River resources manager for the irrigation district, told the L.A. Times. “I don’t think anybody down here is going to volunteer for more transfers."
Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor for High Country News.