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When the region’s water supplies were cut last July, the effects were muted here because of the San Diego County Water Authority’s steady source: paying farmers in Imperial County to fallow their fields and buying the water that would otherwise be used for irrigation.

So instead of a 13 percent supply cut, San Diego got an 8 percent cut. All thanks to that water, which comes from the Colorado River.

That supply got a lot shakier yesterday, when a judge invalidated the agreement that lets the whole thing happen.

The Los Angeles Times offers the best quote, from the plaintiff whose suit led to the invalidation:

“I never anticipated I would win,” said Malissa Hathaway McKeith.

The 2003 agreement McKeith and others in Imperial County challenged sounds simple. Water from the Colorado gets sold to, in effect, the highest bidder. Imperial County farmers are entitled to a lot of the river’s water and they pay hardly anything for it. San Diego’s urban users are willing to pay the farmers a lot more. (As in $5.4 billion over 75 years, the Times says.)

The water authority is counting on the transfer as a vital part of its efforts to diversify its supplies and reduce its reliance on the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, which delivered the 13 percent cut last year.

Here’s the rub: Without the agreement, the water would otherwise irrigate crops and ultimately run off into the Salton Sea. Redirecting the water to our taps means less goes into the inland sea. And because the sea sits in the middle of the desert, migrating birds love it.

But as less water runs off, the sea shrinks, threatening the birds that use it. As it shrinks, toxic dust once underwater can be stirred up and get airborne, threatening the people who live around it. That’s where the legal trouble starts. The Times says:

As part of the deal, the state and the irrigators committed to help pay for what will probably be a hugely expensive fix for the sea, an important stopover for migrating waterfowl.

But the judge found that the state’s funding commitment was so open-ended it amounted to a blank check and therefore violated California’s constitutional limits on state debt.

The Union-Tribune says the environmental fix could cost billions:

The authority and its allies committed $133 million, and the state agreed to pay the rest of the bills.

No restoration plan has been adopted. The Schwarzenegger administration has a much broader economic and environmental revitalization plan under consideration, but its price tag is $9 billion.

So what’s next? More litigation. The ruling will be appealed. For now, water continues to flow to San Diego.

— ROB DAVIS

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