For the last decade, much of Malissa’s work as an environmental activist has been focused on advocacy and litigation work related to the long-term repercussions of the historic QSA agreement. Both in court and in the public policy arena, she has advocated for more transparency, due process, public participation, foresight and accountability in decision-making.
She has participated in numerous lawsuits to overturn the QSA. In addition, through CURE, Malissa spearheaded a multinational effort to challenge the decision to cement the All-American Canal, and she continues to represent landowners and farmers along the Salton Sea.
Because she feels strongly that the Imperial Valley’s long-term’s livability and its economic viability turn on whether and how the QSA is implemented, Malissa undertook a legal strategy that sought to invalidate the deal. She formed an alliance with an Imperial farming company that is not necessarily adverse to the QSA, per se, but fears property values will plummet when the Salton Sea further declines and air pollution rises as a result of the water diversions.
In an effort to protect the Valley, from 2005 to 2008, Malissa frequently found herself in court arguing against IID’s lawyers to overturn the flawed water deal. In late 2009, Malissa obtained a judgment invalidating the water deal; the judge found that the QSA was void because the State of California had unconstitutionally agreed to pay for unlimited costs to remediate damage to the Salton Sea, essentially writing a “blank check.” Estimated costs to restore the damaged Sea range from $178 million to $9 billion, which the legislature never appropriated.
After the 2009 ruling, Malissa was quoted as saying, “The QSA was a rushed deal cram-down that didn’t consider or try to prevent serious environmental and health impacts. Without mitigation, the Salton Sea will dry up and become a toxic dust bowl affecting people from Palm Springs to the Mexican border – it could easily become the new Owens Valley. Today’s ruling gives the state and the local agencies a new chance to make things right, both for taxpayers and for the people of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys.” Unfortunately, eager to prop up the water deal regardless of the Salton Sea, the water entities (funded by millions of taxpayer dollars) passed up the opportunity to rethink the original deal and appealed.
In 2010, the California Court of Appeal reversed the 2009 win. Despite a petition to the California and United States Supreme Courts, the case was remanded for a new trial in November 2012. In July 2013, the trial court validated the QSA for the first time – a decade after the initial deal was signed. In the interim, even the Imperial Irrigation District – plaintiff in the litigation – has acknowledged Malissa’s concerns about the decline of the Salton Sea and is now struggling with how to address the environmental impacts.