Salton Sea Loses Water Rights Battle

The farming region of California’s Imperial County and the state’s largest lake lost out to water-hungry coastal cities Monday in a federal appeals court ruling on water allocation.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court in holding there was no violation of clear air laws in a challenged 2009 Colorado River Water Delivery Agreement.

Imperial County and the its air pollution control district alleged that the pact gave more of California’s allocation to coastal cities and left high and dry the state’s eastern desert-turned-farming region and the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake.

The appeals court said U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia did not abuse his discretion by upholding the Secretary of Interior’s finding that the transfer would not harm air quality.

The county and a group of affected water districts argued the transfers would expose more shoreline on the Salton Sea and leave farmland fallow.  These changes would increase dust pollution in the region, they argued.

The Salton Sea, the largest inland body of water in the state, was a mistake.  In 1905, Colorado River water breached an irrigation canal and flooded the then-dry SaltonBasin.  After that flood, irrigation runoff from the Imperial and CoachellaValleys supplied by the Colorado River, sustained the Sea for more than 100 years.

But demands on Colorado River water grew to the point that Arizona, Nevada and California had to agree on formal transfer arrangements to conserve the river.

California has long used more than its allotment.

The Secretary of Interior, who controls the delivery of river water, prepared an environmental report that recognized the potential consequences of changes in delivery, but nonetheless approved the deal that cut ImperialCounty’s allotment.

The appeals court affirmed the decision, rejecting claims the Secretary violated the National Environmental Protection Act.

Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote the decision.  Signing on with him were Judges Paul Watford and William Smith, visiting Judge from Rhode Island.

Case: People of California v. U.S. Dept. of Interior, No.  12-55856


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