Agriculture, Colorado River, Conservation, Ecosystem, Imperial, MWD, Salton Sea, San Diego, SWRCB, Water Quality, Water Rights, Water Supply, Water Transfers

Imperial and San Diego file petition on Salton Sea mitigation water

In 2002, one year before the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) and related agreements were executed, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a key approval facilitating a long-term water transfer. The transfer, which carries a 45-year term and an option to renew for 30 additional years, involves Imperial Irrigation District conserving water and transferring the conserved quantity on a ramped-up schedule — up to 200,000 acre-feet annually (afa) to the San Diego County Water Authority and 100,000 afa to the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) and Coachella Valley Water District.  In order to approve this water transfer, the State Board made certain changes to Permit 7643, which allows Imperial to divert up to 10,000 cfs year-round from the Colorado River.  These changes added new places of use (San Diego, MWD, and Coachella service areas) to the permit, a new purpose of use (municipal), and a new point of diversion at Lake Havasu to send water to San Diego and MWD.

The tricky part with transfers is avoiding “injury” to other water users and the environment.  The situation was perhaps especially precarious in this context, where the hierarchy established by the Seven-Party Agreement practically ensured that whenever one entity used less than its full entitlement, another entity with a lower priority would always be standing in line waiting to intercept the extra water.  But even negotiating around those issues does not resolve the conundrum of the Salton Sea.  Although it recognized that the Imperial-San Diego water transfer is a critical component of California’s strategy to live within its 4.4 million afa entitlement to the Colorado River, the State Board conditioned its approval of the transfer on implementation of mitigation measures to ensure that fish and wildlife would not be unreasonably affected.  Among these requirements was that “mitigation water,” generated by fallowing land in the Imperial Valley, would be provided to prevent the increasing salinity and lowering elevation of the Salton Sea.

This mitigation water is the subject of a new petition filed jointly by Imperial and San Diego.

Salton Sea

The Salton Sea. (Photo: courtesy of Aquafornia.)

The petition (PDF) asks the State Board to eliminate the requirement for mitigation water from the year 2014 to 2017, unless the Legislature by 2014 adopts what has thus far been sorely lacking — a comprehensive and fully-funded plan to restore the Salton Sea.  Instead of providing mitigation water, Imperial and San Diego would rather implement what they call “accelerated alternative mitigation,” which aims to improve habitat even as it would reduce inflow to the Salton Sea.  This would free up additional water to be transferred, and so the petition also asks the State Board to approve a schedule allowing transfer of that water currently reserved for the Salton Sea between 2014 and 2017.

The petition serves as a reminder that the current regime to extend the life of the fragile Salton Sea was designed to be an interim stopgap measure and that, despite the glacial pace of progress and lack of funding for restoration, the clock is ticking.

The Salton Sea — hypersaline to the point that adding ocean water would dilute it — is sustained by drainage from the Imperial Valley.  This drainage is considerably more saline than the Colorado River water diverted by Imperial, but it is still beneficial even when mixed with polluted New River and Alamo River water.  Although Imperial’s conservation efforts create a source of newly transferable water — thereby increasing the efficiency of water allocation in a region where more efficient allocation is very much needed — these efforts likewise reduce the inflow that sustains the Salton Sea. As the Sea has no outlet, salt will continue to accumulate and concentrate as the water level lowers from both evaporation and reduced inflow. This increasing salinity, if allowed to continue unchecked, would eventually decimate the tilapia fishery that serves as a food source for birds. About 400 bird species, including eared grebes and American white pelicans, rely on the Sea and its adjacent wetlands for habitat and nourishment, making the Sea an important spot in a vastly diminished network of wetlands for migratory birds of the Pacific Flyway. Some of Imperial’s agricultural drains are characterized by vegetation and also serve habitat purposes.

Without mitigation, the Imperial-San Diego water transfer hastens the decline of the Salton Sea by increasing salinity faster than would otherwise occur without the transfer:

Salton Sea salinity (ppt) 2000-2080, with and without the transfer. (Courtesy of IID/SWRCB.)

Likewise for lowering the water surface elevation:

Salton Sea elevation (ft) 2000-2080, with and without the transfer. (Courtesy of IID/SWRCB.)

Recognizing that the water transfer exacerbates the situation, the State Board conditioned its approval of the transfer on mitigation water being provided to maintain the baseline salinity and water elevation for a fifteen-year period ending in 2017.  Yet the above graphs show that even adding mitigation water to maintain salinity at a level no worse than the baseline, while necessary to prevent a more rapid collapse of the ecosystem, will not resolve the ultimate problem — because the baseline is itself characterized by increasing salinity and declining water surface over the long-term.  In short, the long-term viability of the Salton Sea requires a true restoration plan.  If the alternatives developed in 2006 (PDF) are any indication, this plan would likely involve reducing the Sea’s footprint and managing it as a habitat resource.

Despite proclamations by both the state and federal government embracing this cause, the funding needed to follow through with a restoration plan is nonexistent.  Moreover, in 2010, Judge Candee invalidated the QSA.  Judge Candee reasoned that the State made an open-ended commitment to fund restoration costs exceeding the capped non-State contributions, thus violating the constitutional debt limit.  The appeal of that decision is pending, and until the case is resolved, the QSA’s fate hangs in the balance.  These obstacles are real, but they only emphasize the need to address both the Salton Sea situation and the allocation of water in Southern California.

The basic premise underlying the petition filed by Imperial and San Diego is that if no fully-funded restoration plan is adopted by 2014, it will be impossible for the plan to be implemented by 2017 in light of an estimated five years necessary to complete planning and permitting.  Because the mitigation water requirement was imposed by the State Board for 15 years to prevent the Salton Sea from worsening before a restoration plan could be developed, Imperial and San Diego argue that it would be futile to continue sending mitigation water to the Salton Sea after 2014, in anticipation of a restoration plan that at that point could not begin construction until well after the State Board’s deadline expires.  Imperial and San Diego propose instead that they implement additional mitigation measures on an accelerated schedule, presumably involving habitat creation and air quality mitigation.  In their estimation, these measures would provide greater ecosystem benefits than simply delivering water to the Salton Sea without a true restoration plan. To the extent that mitigation water is transferred instead of put into the Sea, the additional mitigation measures could be funded by the transfer proceeds.

The petition may seem premature in that no action can be taken on it yet.  Not only does it remain to be seen what progress, if any, will be made before 2014 toward restoring the Salton Sea, but Imperial and San Diego have yet to document in any detail the substance and environmental impacts of the alternative mitigation measures they propose. They should also demonstrate the ecosystem benefits of these measures as compared to delivery of mitigation water. But proactively proposing a change in strategy may be more effective for them than passively awaiting the extension of an expired deadline.

Another interesting aspect is the way in which the California Constitution’s requirement of putting water to “reasonable and beneficial use” has contributed to the ebb and flow of events in the Salton Sea debate. When setting the 15-year deadline to provide mitigation water, the State Board suggested that using water to maintain the Salton Sea’s salinity and elevation baseline was appropriate — but that at some point it may become unreasonable to insist that delivery of mitigation water continue indefinitely:

It would be unreasonable to require the continued mitigation of the impact of the transfer on the Salton Sea if the decline of the Sea continues to the point where restoration is no longer feasible, or if it becomes clear that no implementation plan will ever be developed. At the point when it becomes unreasonable to require continued mitigation of impacts on the Salton Sea, because there is no longer any hope for saving the Sea, the public interest in avoiding inappropriate burdens on this important transfer outweighs any harm to instream beneficial uses of the Sea.

(SWRCB Water Right Order 2002-0013, p. 44.)

This passage leaves open the possibility of finding mitigation water to be wasteful if it becomes clear that fixing the Salton Sea is beyond hope. It also provides an interesting counterpoint, given that the events leading up to this “important transfer” were instigated in the first place when the State Board decided in 1984 that Imperial wasted water — by allowing 1 million afa of irrigation return flow to enter the Salton Sea.

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