CURE's Work Opposing the Water Transfer Deal
The Colorado Delta proved to be only the tip of the iceberg. With the new century fast approaching, California was being forced to reduce its consumption of Colorado River water, and plans were soon underway to transfer huge volumes of water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego.
The water transfer deal eventually hammered out became known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement (or "QSA"). The agreement called for the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), California's biggest user of Colorado River water, to sell up to 300,000 acre feet of water per year to the coastal cities of San Diego County. To generate this water, IID planned to take three measures: provide inducements to famers for fallowing their agricultural fields, institute on-farm water efficiency techniques, and encase in concrete the Imperial Valley's main water conveyance channel from the Colorado, the All-American Canal.
But CURE and other environmental conservation groups argued that the plan to line the canal in concrete would have perilous ecological and economic consequences. Poor Mexican farmers who had depended on this water source for generations would lose their livelihoods. Many associated businesses would close. Environmentally sensitive wetlands supporting endangered species would be irreversibly harmed. And the concrete lining would choke any canal's seepage flow into the Salton Sea, one of the most environmentally imperiled bodies of water in the U.S., and one of the few remaining viable stopovers on the critical Pacific Flyway.
In 2005, CURE initiated litigation to block the lining of the All-American Canal. Unfortunately, its efforts were unsuccessful. Before the water deal was finalized in 2002, CURE also lobbied IID to delay voting on the QSA until the state of California addressed and pledged to mitigate the negative environmental and economic consequences of the agreement - including the fallowing of farm land, loss of farm labor jobs, threats to the region's economic base, and the gradual elimination of the Salton Sea's main source of water. Unlike many other areas where on-farm water conservation techniques are both effective and environmentally sustainable, in Imperial such measures would result in substantially more air pollution and respiratory illnesses, from more frequent dust storms and toxic particle emissions from the increased exposure of Salton Sea lakebed.
Prior to enactment of the water deal, CURE proposed a number of modifications to the proposed agreement, so it would be more equitable for all residents of Imperial Valley. CURE advocated that the water transfers take place for a maximum of 15 rather than 75 years to allow a reassessment of economic and environmental impacts before the deal went into full force and effect. CURE also asserted and continues to maintain that less water should be transferred to San Diego County to reserve enough flow to keep the Salton Sea alive. In addition, CURE believes that San Diego should explore practical conservation measures such as low-flow toilets and gray water landscape use for its golf courses and new home systems.
In October 2003, convinced that the State of California would fund the restoration of the Salton Sea, the Imperial Irrigation District approved a version of the 1501-page QSA. A decade of litigation ensued. In 2009, a court invalidated the deal because the State of California's commitment to mitigate the decline of the Sea was unenforceable. An appellate court reversed and the case was retried. In August 2013, the QSA deal was finally "validated" by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly.
This disappointing decision will force the Coachella, Imperial and Mexicali valleys to grapple with heavy environmental and social burdens: increased air pollution, declining tourism and multiplying job loss as the Salton Sea recedes - consequences that regional decision-makers largely ignored, in hopes the negative impacts "might not" occur or would be resolved or mitigated by the federal and state government.
In 2017, the water transfers will go into full effect. Because IID had assumed a full Salton Sea restoration plan would be adopted by then, it is now faced with how to address the potentially severe environmental and health consequences of the woefully shortsighted water transfer agreement.