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IID Sues to Halt Colorado River Drought Plan


Last updated 5/1/2019 at 11:37am

The Imperial Irrigation District has filed a lawsuit in attempts to halt the Colorado River Drought Plan, signed by President Donald Trump April 16, where officials say the Salton Sea was wrongly left out.

The IID holds senior rights to the single-biggest allocation of water from the river.

The signed plan aims to cut back on the use of water from the Colorado River, which serves over 40 million people and five million acres of farm land across seven western States, and hoping to prevent water levels in two key reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, from falling so low that they cannot deliver water or produce hydropower.

However, the IID has asked the Los Angeles Superior Court to block the plan until more analysis is done on the environmental impact of the agreement, alleging violations of the Environmental Quality Act by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

“The logic in going forward without the IID was that the [drought plan] couldn’t wait for the Salton Sea,” Henry Martinez, Imperial district’s general manager, said in a statement. “This legal challenge is going to put that logic to the test, and the focus will now be where it should have been all along – at the Salton Sea.”

This is the IID’s latest attempt to put the brakes on this plan until the federal government ponies up $200 million for restoration of the shrinking Salton Sea.

“[The plan] is missing 21 percent of the Colorado River’s delivered water and instead of squarely addressing the greatest environmental challenge facing the entire river system – by name – tries to pretend it doesn’t exist,” Erik Ortega, president of the IID’s Board of Directors, said in a statement.

As the shoreline recedes, lakebed contaminated with agricultural chemicals and pollutants have turned to dust, fouling the air. The Salton Sea – one of the world’s largest inland seas – has been drying rapidly since Jan. 2018. Fish and migratory bird populations have declined, and potentially toxic clouds of dust could rise from the exposed lakeshore.

Imperial’s fear is that if the MWD gets less water from the Colorado River, the agency will increase its farm water purchases, accelerating the lake’s decline and pollution problems.

However, federal water managers and MWD officials urge that the Drought plan will not badly affect the Salton Sea.

“We looked into this carefully, and we designed a program that does not have impacts on the Salton Sea,” Jeffery Kightlinger, MWD general manager, said. “I don’t believe we’ve done anything that requires future environmental review.”

The Salton Sea is sustained largely by irrigation drainage from croplands in the Imperial and Coachella valley’s, and because of the decline, Imperial and other farm districts have taken land out of production to sell water to MWD and San Diego.

The MWD supplies drinking water to millions in Southern California, and agreed to shoulder California’s share of cutbacks if they’re needed, but the pledge cut out the IID.

The IID refused to sign the Drought contingency plan earlier this year, which prompted the MWD to bypass Imperial and agree to shoulder most of the delivery cuts California may have to make in the future to prevent Lake Mead from falling to dangerously low levels.

Lake Mead – a man-made lake and the largest reservoir in the U.S. in terms of water capacity – fell to its lowest level ever in 2016. The lake has not been full since 1983, and water levels have declined since then, the most severe Drought in 1,250 years for the Colorado River.

Mexico also agreed to store water in Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border if the U.S. legislation was approved by April 22.

Arizona has the lowest-priority access to Colorado River water, and will be hit the hardest. The Colorado River and its reservoirs experienced 19 years of Drought, and despite a healthy snow pack and rain this year, experts predict climate change and overuse will continue to reduce flow levels.

Arizona, California, and Nevada all rely on Lake Mead for water, and the plan outlines how they will share limited water (and distribute water cuts) to prevent future water crises. The plan also includes stipulations for providing payments for those offering compensatory water.

New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah also agreed to explore more productive management of Lake Powell.

“This is a historic moment for the Colorado River, the west and the entire country. Passing the Drought contingency plan set in place a foundation for conservation that will ensure a more secure future for the American Southwest,” Kevin Moran, senior director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River program, said.

The IID’s petition also alleges that the MWD wrongly committed to enter into agreements on behalf of itself and all other California contractors.

“We are disappointed that the IID is using litigation as a tool to block the implementation of the Drought Contingency Plan. Parties on the Colorado River need to collaborate during this time of crisis, not litigate,” Kightlinger stated. “During our negotiations on the [plan], it was our goal to find an approach that had no adverse impacts on the Salton Sea.”

With congressional approval and Trump’s signature authorizing the legislation, the signature of the Interior Department and the seven states that draw from the Colorado River are needed.

Kightlinger expects a signing ceremony in the coming weeks, and believes a lawsuit will not change anything on the ground.

Martinez added that the timing of the lawsuit the same day as Trump signed the legislation was coincidental.

The district was up against a deadline to act once the MWD’s board voted to approve taking on IID’s share of water, he said.