Parties in Southern California Litigation Seek Partnership on Environmental Issues

By Stephen Siciliano  


LOS ANGELES--Parties litigating an agreement for large-scale water transfers in Southern California are recommending that the state enter a public/private partnership to mitigate environmental impacts caused by the transfers (In re: Quantification Settlement Agreement Cases, Cal. Super. Ct., No. JC 4353, status report 4/1/13).

In a status report on settlement talks filed April 1 in California Superior Court, negotiators for Imperial County and Imperial Irrigation District said the state could not meet the commitment to mitigate adverse environmental impacts to the Salton Sea that it assumed when the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) was signed in 2003.

“The very existence of the QSA is threatened by this development and by the state's unwillingness and/or inability to timely meet its obligation to stave off environmental catastrophe at the Salton Sea,” the report said.

The QSA is a series of 30 contracts authorizing the transfer of as much as 12.9 million acre-feet of water over 75 years from agricultural Imperial County to urban San Diego.

The agreement generated a number of lawsuits, with local farmers and landowners alleging the irrigation district overstepped its authority in signing the pact, and environmental groups and Imperial County raising California Environmental Quality Act concerns and worries about impacts to the Salton Sea. The irrigation district also filed a lawsuit seeking court validation of the QSA. The cases were ultimately consolidated.

California Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly on March stayed the litigation until June 3 to allow the parties an opportunity to pursue settlement talks (2013 WLPM, 3/13/13).

Under the QSA, the Imperial Irrigation District is to make up for both the loss of water to San Diego and the decrease in its usual supplies from the Colorado River through on-farm conservation and fallowing.

Reduced Flows a Problem

However, these conservation practices are expected to result in reduced agricultural inflow to the Salton Sea, California's largest lake, exposing more of the shoreline and causing airborne particulates laced with farm pesticides to be released, worsening already poor air quality. Without recharges of water, rising salinity is also expected to reduce the lake's role as a vibrant fishery.

The state's failure to act on mitigation means the environmental impact report (EIR) done for the QSA needs further evaluation, the status report said.

“Indeed, validation or invalidation with an EIR that does not operate prospectively is of little value,” the report said, arguing for a negotiated settlement over a court-brokered one.

Instead, negotiators suggested, the state might participate in the development of a “public/private master plan” for Salton Sea environmental efforts, to be funded via “certain augmented revenues (or fees).”

Cost-Sharing Sought

The overall goal, the report stated, would be a master plan “for the allocation of costs to share with all of the QSA partners that identifies possible funding sources and plans for implementation.”

The local tax base, the status report noted, cannot bear the full cost of mitigation.

The settlement talks do not involve all the QSA litigants. Prominent among those not at the table is the San Diego County Water Authority, primary recipient of the Imperial Irrigation District water transfer.

San Diego and the state attorney general filed objections to the stay when the court proposed the schedule. The opposing parties cited the many years of litigation already completed and the fact no “global” agreement could be reached without their participation.

The status report noted, “The negotiating teams have focused primarily on the partners directly involved in solutions. However, it is anticipated that in April and May, other partners to the QSA will be encouraged to participate.”

The negotiating team met four times following the court's March 6 approval of a 90-day stay, according to the report.

Parties to the consolidated QSA cases were anticipating an imminent ruling from the Superior Court for the County of San Francisco when the irrigation district filed its request for stay.