Malissa’s appointment to the Colorado River Board came at a pivotal time. After a century of massive population growth, by the mid-1980s state lawmakers were finally facing the reality that California was overusing its allotment of Colorado River water, and considering solutions. California had been entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water per year. It was using 5.3 million acre-feet. When Gov. Wilson appointed Malissa to the Colorado River Board in 1997, the Board was in the midst of negotiating details of what would become a landmark agreement to bring California into compliance with its federally allotted portion of Colorado River water.
Instead of holding open hearings to address a range of alternatives to reduce California’s over reliance on the river, a decision was made that the water-rich Imperial Valley should sell and transfer a large quantity of its water to San Diego, while also reducing its own water use through on-farm conservation, the following of agricultural fields, and encasing in concrete its main water conveyance channel from the Colorado, the All American Canal. (See diagram). This deal, ultimately enacted in 2003, was called the Quantification Settlement Agreement (“QSA”) for the Colorado River.
Malissa’s five years as a public member of the Colorado River Board were a tremendous education in the vicissitudes of high-level political battles over Southern California’s water needs. They also gave her the impetus to embark on her own independent advocacy and legal work on trans-boundary water and environmental issues, as well as on the economic and environmental consequences of the QSA on the Imperial Valley.
Malissa witnessed up close how powerful water interests and government decision-makers could ignore with virtual impunity the long-range environmental and economic impacts of their decisions. Except for Malissa and one other member representing the general public, the Board consisted of the general managers of the major California water agencies. Malissa learned that when it came to the QSA negotiations, the Board maintained a closed-door policy that succeeded in keeping out key public interest advocates, mainstream environmental organizations, and any other meaningful opposition.