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Courts Weighs Scrapping Huge California Water Pact

A vanishing lake figures large in a court battle over how Southern California gets it water, a high-stakes dispute with consequences that could ripple throughout the western United States.

Pelicans fly over the Salton Sea at sunrise on July 7, 2011 in Salton City, California.
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Above: Pelicans fly over the Salton Sea at sunrise on July 7, 2011 in Salton City, California.

A California appeals court is considering whether to overturn a landmark 2003 agreement that created the nation's largest farm-to-city water transfer and set new rules for dividing the state's share of the Colorado River. A three-judge panel of the 3rd Appellate District in Sacramento will hear arguments Monday and is expected to rule within three months.

Farmers and environmentalists involved in the lawsuit argue the pact is deeply flawed, while California water agencies say it is critical to keeping an uneasy peace on the river. The court has given each side 45 minutes to make its case and asked lawyers to focus on whether the state of California violated its constitution by essentially writing a blank check to restore the shrinking Salton Sea.

California long used more of the Colorado River than it was granted under agreements with Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico. Its overindulgence was never a big problem until Sunbelt cities like Phoenix witnessed explosive growth and other states clamored for their full share. Drought only exacerbated tensions.

The 2003 accord between California's warring water agencies reins the state to its limit established 80 years earlier of 4.4 million acre-feet of water a year — enough to supply about 9 million homes. The centerpiece called for California's Imperial Valley — a farming region of 175,000 residents that gets nearly 20 percent of the entire river — to sell water to San Diego.

In January 2010, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Roland Candee gutted the pact in a sweeping, 52-page decision that faulted the state for its open-ended commitment to the Salton Sea. California's largest lake is more than 200 feet below sea level and relies on water that seeps down from nearby farms. The sale of water to San Diego further threatens the lake's future.

The judge ruled that a state law committing California to save the lake no matter the cost set an unacceptable precedent for the government to pledge money to other projects it couldn't afford. The administration of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pegged the cost of saving the Salton Sea at a whopping $9 billion.

Fish die-off at the Salton Sea.
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Above: Fish die-off at the Salton Sea.

The state's dire fiscal straits offer little hope for the lake, whose rapidly receding shores are layered with dead fish. Its waters — about one-third saltier than the ocean — continue to draw a tremendous variety of birds, but biologists say they will disappear without fish to prey upon. Imperial Valley residents worry that receding shores will blow dust, worsening air quality.

"It's the 800-pound gorilla in the closet," said Malissa McKeith, a lawyer for Imperial Valley landowners who are challenging the pact. "If we don't fix it now, you're just going to have so much of a bigger problem in 10 years."

The legal issues are highly complex, but the stakes and passions are high.

The water transfers have made the San Diego area less dependent on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a behemoth that serves nearly 19 million people and was virtually San Diego's only source of water in the early 1990s. It remains controversial in the Imperial Valley, eight years after the Imperial Irrigation District board approved it in a 3-2 vote under heavy state and federal pressure.

If the lower court ruling stands, consequences could ripple to other Western states and Mexico, which also rely on the 1,450-mile river that flows from the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez. The agreement remains in effect while the case is under appeal.

"A stable California is good for the river," said John Entsminger, senior deputy general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies 2 million people in Las Vegas and surrounding areas.

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