Desert Water Agency Sues Over Federal Water Plan's Neglect Of Salton Sea Crisis

Apr 18, 2019

COACHELLA (CNS) - One day after President Donald Trump signed a
Southwestern regional drought pact into law, a Coachella Valley water agency
announced a lawsuit today accusing Southern California's water-distribution
manager of violating state environmental laws in forging the agreement.
   The lawsuit by the Imperial Irrigation District, filed Tuesday in Los
Angeles Superior Court, seeks to ``suspend approvals and actions'' relating to
the Drought Contingency Plan until a thorough environmental analysis can be
   The suit is the latest salvo by IID over the Drought Contingency Plan -
- a multi-state agreement that ensures states from the Lower Colorado River
Basin will store set volumes of water in Lake Mead if the lake drops to certain
   The Imperial Irrigation District refused to sign onto the Drought
Contingency Plan, saying it wanted a ``firm commitment'' of more than $400
million in state and federal funds to resolve environmental issues at the
Salton Sea. Although the Salton Sea continues to be federally protected under
the Drought Contingency Plan, IID officials expressed continuing concerns about
what it calls a mounting public health crisis at the Salton Sea and the need
for additional funding.
   Despite IID's objections, the pact was advanced by other regional
water agencies, including Southern California's regional water wholesaler, the
Metropolitan Water District.
   The IID's lawsuit accuses MWD of violating the California
Environmental Quality Act by moving forward with the pact without adequate
Salton Sea protections.
   ``As long as IID was part of the DCP, the Salton Sea would have been
insulated from impacts because IID could have protected it,'' IID board
president Erik Ortega said. ``But under this DCP, particularly now that MWD is
calling the shots for California and acting on behalf of the rest of the
Colorado River, the Salton Sea is truly on its own. That's why IID is acting to
preserve its rights -- and the Salton Sea's future -- by filing this CEQA
   Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the MWD, said the Salton Sea
remains a priority in the plan.
   ``During our negotiations on the Drought Contingency Plan, it was our
goal to find an approach that had no adverse impacts on the Salton Sea,'' he
said. ``That goal was achieved -- the contributions to Lake Mead that will be
made by Metropolitan and others will not decrease water going to the sea.
Moving forward, we remain committed to working with our partners on the
Colorado River and with the federal government to secure funding and lasting
solutions to the challenges of the Salton Sea.''
   He added, ``We are disappointed that the Imperial Irrigation District
is using litigation as a tool to block implementation of the Drought
Contingency Plan. Parties on the Colorado River need to collaborate during this
time of crisis, not litigate.''
   Robert Schettler of IID said the water agency violated state
environmental law by committing water agencies into an agreement that would
ultimately allow the regional authority to forgo the diversion of ``hundreds of
thousands of acre-feet of water annually'' from the Colorado River without
considering the consequences of those decisions.
   ``The declining Salton Sea presents a severe public health and
environmental crisis,'' Schettler said. ``This is really about protecting the
backyard here. ... Our area in the Imperial Valley is one of the poorest in the
state. You know, the lowest average median income and the highest asthma rate,
and we're trying to protect those people.''
   Nearly 650,000 people are affected by poor air quality in the Salton
Sea area, according to a report from the Pacific Institute. The report noted
that asthma risks increase for underprivileged communities as fine dust leaches
into the air from the Salton Sea's receding shoreline. It found that more than
100 tons of dust per day could be released into the air by 2045 if the
shorelines are allowed to recede at the current rate.
   Restoration programs for the Salton Sea were linchpin issues for IID
back in December when the organization tentatively agreed to sign the DCP,
Schettler said.
   Kightlinger insisted the plan ``will help stabilize Colorado River
supplies for seven states and Mexico for the next eight years while we find
lasting solutions in the basin that ensure the people, crops and ecosystems
that rely on the river have a reliable water supply for generations.''