However, a final outcome is still a ways off as the Quantification Settlement Agreement was ordered back to the Sacramento Superior Court for a decision on the environmental issues surrounding the case.
Imperial County, its air pollution control district and other parties had sued the IID, the state and other water agencies after the set of agreements to transfer IID-entitlement water to the coast was approved in 2003. 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 it was a key component of the agreements.
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In the 166-page ruling released Wednesday, a panel of three judges reversed Candee’s invalidation decision and ordered the case to go back to the trial court to decide on California Environmental Quality Act issues.
The ruling is definitely a win for the IID, said district General Counsel Jeff Garber. The ruling validated the agreement, as well as rejecting all the other grounds argued by opposing parties that would invalidate the QSA.
In short, he said, the issue of whether the QSA is a valid agreement has been decided.
Unless the case is appealed it will go back to the trial court to decide on the environmental and other miscellaneous issues, he said. The environmental issues, unlike the validation question, are not black and white and there are a variety of ways those issues can be handled.
The county has 15 days to seek a rehearing or 40 days to appeal the invalidation ruling to the California Supreme Court, said Imperial County Counsel Michael Rood. Throughout the next few weeks, lawyers will be studying the information released Wednesday to decide on the next step the county will make.
“We’re disappointed in the decision, but in some respects this makes some things more clear for all of us,” he said.
The ruling makes it clear that IID is transferring the water at its own risk, and water agencies can’t require the state to pay for Salton Sea restoration, Rood said. It also keeps the environmental claims that the county is making alive and orders a prompt resolution for them.
He added that he hopes the CEQA issues are taken up by the Sacramento Superior Court in the near future, though no time table has been given yet.
The county’s concern has continued to be public health impacts of the receding Salton Sea shoreline and increased dust that many have said is made worse by less water going to the sea from the QSA, said county Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Terrazas. The good thing about the court’s ruling is that the environmental claims will be heard.
“I think from what I had seen at the hearing it doesn’t surprise me that the QSA was validated,” he said. “I think we saw it because of the judge’s questioning,” Terrazas added, referring to Acting Presiding Judge Ronald B. Robie’s near criticism of the side wanting to end the QSA.
The county Board of Supervisors will now have to discuss how to continue with the case and whether to appeal it to the California Supreme Court, he said.
“If it comes to me, I don’t want to take that issue to the Supreme Court review,” he said. “I don’t know how the other board members may feel.”
The case has been going for a number of years, and he said he just wants to get down to how to solve the issues and keep the Salton Sea “from becoming a dust bowl.” The county is one step closer to getting there.
Environmental attorney Malissa McKeith, who represented some Imperial County landowners in the case on the county’s side, was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Other water agencies for the water transfer hailed the decision to keep the landmark agreement in place.
“Water supplies from the QSA are the cornerstone of the (San Diego County) Water Authority’s long-term water supply diversification program,” said Michael T. Hogan, chair of the Water Authority’s Board of Directors, in a statement. “These supplies are vital to the health of our region’s economy and to the quality of life of not only today’s population, but for generations to come.”
Locally, though, the opinions were more reserved.
“This is obviously good news, and it’s been a long time coming, but there’s still considerable work to do in turning this agreement into one that is environmentally sustainable for the Salton Sea and economically viable for Imperial Valley agriculture,” said IID General Manager Kevin Kelley. “This has been a long process, and I doubt that this decision brings it to a close, but for IID’s part, we’re heartened by the decision and intend to work within the framework of the QSA to make certain it works for the district, its water users and the public.”
Board President Stella Mendoza agreed that there’s still work to do.
“I didn’t vote for the QSA,” she said, speaking of the 2003 vote. “However, it’s a valid contract, and I will honor that contract. If that blows up it will not be because of the IID.”
The QSA provides funding to do a water system conservation program, which will help the district become more efficient with its water use, she said.
“Ultimately the goal is to protect our water rights, because without water, we’re nothing,” she said. “The Imperial Valley dies.”
Staff Writer Elizabeth Varin can be reached at email@example.com or 760-337-3441.