But now others are questioning whether the decision to keep the nation’s largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer going is good for the local water district as the responsibility for saving the Salton Sea could fall on Imperial Irrigation District customers’ backs.
One portion of the agreement that requires the state to pay for restoration costs for the Salton Sea was ruled invalid last year as Sacramento Superior Court Judge Roland Candee said it essentially required the state to write a blank check for the restoration, which is unconstitutional. That ruling put the future of the water transfer at risk as water transfer mitigation for the Salton Sea was a key component of the agreements.
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With the Dec. 7 appellate court ruling that reversed the Sacramento Superior Court decision, the state obligation is “no longer a blank check. It’s an empty promise,” said IID Director Jim Hanks.
“The question is they made a move to get around the constitutionality of it, but what has that done to us?” Hanks said. “This judge said the state doesn’t have to appropriate. We can’t force them to appropriate. So when the mitigation money is gone, and now you have all these health hazards and everything, who’s held responsible? The landowners around the sea and the majority landowner around the sea is the Imperial Irrigation District.
“They have just put the burden of mitigation on our backs, and we just can’t afford it,” he added
The water transfer will have to be renegotiated, Hanks said. And questions have to be answered about whether IID lawyers knew the state wouldn’t be required to pay or the state is set to breach its contract should it not pay for mitigation costs.
“At the end of the day, whatever the judge rules, the problem with the sea still exists and there are still going to be repercussions from it. It’s going to have to be dealt with,” he said. “The bottom line is the Imperial Valley cannot take the liability of mitigation that’s benefiting 20 million people and put the burden on 170,000 people.”
Not all agreed with Hanks’ assessment of the situation. Board Vice President John Pierre Menvielle said after reading the court decision, the state will have to pay if costs exceed what has already been dedicated for mitigation.
With or without the water transfer, the Salton Sea shoreline was receding, he said. Water has become a scarce commodity. Still, work needs to move forward now.
“We can’t just keep sitting here spinning our wheels,” he said. “We all have our issues we’re concerned about.”
There are issues including how much each water agency is paying for IID entitlement water, he said. However, part of the agreement that the water agencies and the state made is that the state will have to take care of mitigation of the Salton Sea should it exceed what all the water districts have put in for projects, he said.
“When that money runs out, and if that money runs out, the state will have to step up to the plate and make up the difference,” he said.
While the state doesn’t have any money to put in the pot now, the QSA is a contract and if the state doesn’t fulfill the contract, then it’s a breach of contract, Menvielle said. The district may have to sue.
Any decision like that could be more than a decade away as the joint powers agreement between the different water agencies has money to go toward mitigation, he said. And more money may come as the district is petitioning the state water board to sell mitigation water in order to raise millions more for mitigation projects like managed marshes.
Some answers about the QSA may come next week as water attorney Charles DuMars is set to give his preliminary findings to the Board of Directors at its weekly meeting Tuesday in El Centro, said IID General Manager Kevin Kelley. DuMars and others have been studying the sustainability of the water transfer.
DuMars’ report isn’t expected to rely on the outcome of the appellate court decision, Kelley said. However, the district will still have a lot of work that need to be done to make sure the water transfer works both environmentally and economically.
“This is a complicated set of agreements,” Kelley said. “Our reward — if you can call it that — from this appellate decision is to go back to Superior Court. What occurs on the ground, that is at the Salton Sea and on the farms and fields of the Valley, is going to be IID’s chief concern.”
Staff Writer Elizabeth Varin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-337-3441.