Imperial Valley: In a Bone-Dry Region, A Battle For Leaking Water
04 13 07 San Francisco Chronicle
South of the border between California and Mexico, vast farms grow scallions, lettuce and cotton, and hidden wetlands thrive on water that seeps underground from a leaky irrigation canal in the Imperial Valley.
North of the border, California water managers want to capture the leakage to supply the subdivisions sprawling onto the desert near San Diego, and more efficiently use their share of the Colorado River, by lining the canal with concrete.
California environmentalists and Mexican farmers took the cross-border water battle to federal court in 2005, saying the project to line the All-American Canal imperiled a crucial aquifer in the Mexicali Valley. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled last week that the project can proceed “without delay” and said plaintiffs’ concerns were made moot by a little-noticed provision in an omnibus tax-reform bill passed in the final hours of last year’s lame-duck congressional session.
The decision was a triumph for California and San Diego officials who say they are merely fixing “a leak in the hose that delivers California water to California,” in the words of San Diego County Water Authority attorney Daniel Hentschke, and ensuring that they don’t have to look to Northern California for additional water anytime soon.
But with a persistent drought that some scientists say is worsened by global warming, and booming populations on both sides of the border, the decision could exacerbate tensions over water between the two nations and spell trouble for Mexico’s fragile Colorado Delta ecosystem, which subsists only on leaks and wastewater.
The $300 million canal project, which would replace the earthen ditch with a concrete-lined channel for 23 of the canal’s 82 miles, is expected to recoup 67,000 acre-feet of water each year, enough for half a million people. Most of the water will go to the San Diego County Water Authority, with 17 percent reserved to settle water disputes with American Indian tribes in San Diego County.
The seven states that rely on the Colorado River consider the project key to a 2003 agreement that would reduce California’s historical overuse of the river’s water. But Mexican farmers have charged that lining the canal would unfairly deprive them of the seepage that has flowed across the border since the canal went into operation in 1942.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, insisted that federal environmental protection and endangered species laws required the United States to study the impact on wetlands in the Mexicali Valley, which are crucial habitat for the endangered Yuma clapper rail and other species.
The federal appeals court, which took up the case in August and issued an emergency injunction blocking the project, ruled Friday that it lacked jurisdiction over the Mexican claims, but that the Mexican plaintiffs could sue for monetary damages in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Plaintiffs are considering such a move.
But farmers in the Mexicali Valley say they are concerned about not only money but also the ability to remain on their desert lands.
“It’s a catastrophe,” said Nazario Ortiz, whose farming village depends on the seepage not only for irrigation but for drinking water. “The court’s drastic decision is taking away the means to support our children.”
The court also ruled that environmental concerns were trumped by the last-minute rider attached to the 279-page tax bill signed by President Bush in December. The law specifies that “notwithstanding any other provision of law … (the government) shall without delay, carry out the All-American Canal Lining Project.”
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, both Democrats, and Arizona Sen. John Kyl, a Republican, were “instrumental” in passing the law, said Hentschke.
“The decision means we can proceed forward with this extremely important water supply program for California,” he said of the court ruling. “If this water were lost to California, then it would put additional demands on Northern California water, (which) all comes out of the delta.”
With the court injunction lifted, Hentschke said, construction could begin by June 1.
The congressional move outraged plaintiffs, who said they are contemplating an appeal to the full Ninth Circuit panel and potentially to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The environmental piece is very disappointing,” said San Diego attorney Gaylord Smith, the plaintiffs’ lead trial lawyer. “It says that NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act), the law that says you have to do environmental impact studies, can be repealed by midnight legislation that no one in Congress knew they were voting for.”
Feinstein defended the rider, saying that “in a time of increasing population and decreasing water supplies as a result of global warming, I believe it is critical to save every drop of water — and this saved … water that would otherwise be lost to groundwater seepage.”
Water managers are increasingly concerned that the Colorado River is overcommitted — with promises of water to the U.S. states and Mexico exceeding the river’s annual flow. Meanwhile, the heavily managed river no longer reaches the Gulf of California, and its once-vast delta has been reduced to a smattering of wetlands fed by inadvertent waste, such as the seepage from the All-American Canal.
Pressure on water sources that benefit the environment is likely to grow, along with tensions among the river’s many users, as drought increases and human populations boom in the American Southwest and northwestern Mexico, scientists say.
Mexico has long opposed lining the canal and has pushed the United States for a diplomatic solution without success, said Roberto Sanchez-Rodriguez, a professor of environmental science at UC Riverside and an expert on cross-border water issues who recently represented Mexico on a North American environmental commission.
“This situation really creates a significant precedent that could affect the relationship” between the two countries, he said. “It is a contentious issue and always has been. That’s likely to increase in the future.”
If the canal is lined with concrete, the accidental wetlands will dry up, eliminating the habitat for the Yuma clapper rail and a rare stopover for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.
“All the remnant wetlands on the Mexican side of the delta are supported by leftovers, refused water deliveries and leakages from the All-American Canal and the Mexican canal system,” said Karl Flessa, a University of Arizona professor who studies the delta ecology. “Whenever you’re increasing the efficiency of water-delivery systems, you’re harming wetlands. It’s a terrible paradox: Nobody wants to waste water, but the water that goes to these habitats is not wasted.”
By Tyche Hendricks Staff Writer