Southern California’s powerful Imperial Irrigation District voted late Tuesday 3-2 to ink an agreement with federal and state officials that could yield as much as $250 million for Salton Sea restoration projects in exchange for not using another 250,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. An acre-foot is enough to supply about two households.
The vote came despite livid objections from Imperial County farmers and environmental groups, who questioned why such a major agreement was being voted on just 24 hours after it was made public, and four days before two newly elected board members are slated to be sworn in to the five-member panel, replacing outgoing president Jim Hanks and outgoing director Norma Galindo, two of the three backers of the agreement on Tuesday.
“This is a slap in the face to the public,” said longtime area farmer Ronnie Leimgruber. “This is a slap in the face of the new board.”
“Most of us heard about this four-way deal for the first time through the news media Monday afternoon …. The omission of public input borders on a violation of human rights when dealing with something essential to living like water,” said Jose Flores, research and advocacy specialist at Comite Civico del Valle, a nonprofit community advocacy group, who denounced it as a “half-baked deal.”.
Flores added, “$250 million for the Salton Sea held in front of the Imperial Valley like some carrot is insulting when we’ve been getting whacked with the stick of disrespect for decades.”
'There is no down side'
But director JB Hamby, agreeing with a majority of the board and the district’s general manager and water director said, "there is no down side" to the agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior, the California Natural Resources Agency and the Coachella Valley Water District because while it does not bind the district to cuts, it guarantees critical federal support if cuts are implemented. The agreement also would release IID from liability for wind-borne pesticides and other toxics contained in exposed lake bed, and loss of habitat for endangered birds and other species. Instead the state of California would absorb that risk.
In exchange, IID agreed to guarantee state contractors long-sought access to its lands to construct restoration projects, and to provide up to 100,000 acre-feet from New River supply, not Colorado River supply.
Outgoing president Hanks said the agreement guarantees up-front for the first time in decades of cuts that federal and state officials will pay for impacts to the Salton Sea from reduced Colorado River supply. The sea is dependent on runoff from Colorado River water provided to farms along its shores for its continued existence. Since 2003, a series of agreements have diverted large amounts from the farms and the lake to urban areas.
Hanks stressed that no new cuts would be made without further talks.
“This is not all-inclusive of our negotiations, this is just saying, 'move it to the next level' … and if they (the federal or state governments) don't (meet the conditions), then blow it up,” Hanks said.
He was joined by Galindo and Hamby in voting to approve the deal. Board vice president Alex Cardenas and director Jose Gonzalez both voted against it, with Gonzalez asking in vain for a week or two delay to allow for fuller public review.
IID general manager Enrique Martinez said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton and California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot had worked hard, at the request of IID, to win federal and state concessions for the Salton Sea prior to agreeing to any further cuts to Colorado River supply. He also said, “This is just setting the table” for further negotiations.
Chuck Parker, head of the Salton Sea Coalition, noted in an email that despite hundreds of millions spent on projects, very little habitat restoration has actually been completed. But California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot weighed in remotely during the meeting, saying the agreement represents a momentous turning point for projects at the sea, which his agency is pushing hard to complete.
But most of the public speakers said the agreement reminded them of a controversial four-way 2003 “quantification settlement agreement” that led to significant amounts of Colorado River water being diverted from the rural county to urban areas. That in turn has cut supply from the farms to the Salton Sea, the state’s largest water body, which is now rapidly shrinking. The new agreement could lead to more than 8,000 acres of additional lakebed being exposed, and as much as 41,000 acres more farmland being fallowed.
A major issue for Comite Civico del Valle Executive Director Luis Olmedo is language in the agreement saying emergency drought authorizations powers could be used to override stringent California Environmental Quality Act reviews. But a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources agency said in emails that the state already had those powers, and no decisions had been made on whether to use them at the Salton Sea.
“Nothing in the agreement waives CEQA or (the National Environmental Protection Act). While we believe it is critical to accelerate needed projects at the Salton Sea to mitigate impacts associated with additional conservation, we are committed to close collaboration with local governments and community-based organizations and environmental conservation groups as we move forward,” wrote senior communications advisor Lisa Lien-Mager.
The guaranteed access to IID lands, along with CVWD lands at the northern edge of the sea, will help finally get projects moving more quickly, said Michael Cohen, senior associate with the Pacific Institute, who has long studied the issues at the sea and who is a member of the state’s long-range planning committee.
“IID’s approval marks a real turning point for the Salton Sea,” Cohen said. “In addition to the significant federal investment in the shrinking lake, IID and – for the first time – the Coachella Valley Water District commit real water for future projects and commit to provide land access, which has been a huge obstacle for years. In return, California will give the districts much-needed legal protections for this land and the feds will fund efforts to protect public and environmental health.”
He added, “Without IID’s aggressive participation, the (Lower Colorado River) Basin can never achieve stability. While this is only a first step and will not be sufficient on its own to protect either the Salton Sea or Lake Mead, this landmark agreement demonstrates much-needed federal commitment to the Salton Sea and IID’s commitment to improving Basin resilience.”
Others noted that with control of the U.S. House of Representatives set to shift shortly to the Republican Party, and with members of Congress not familiar with the Salton Sea or who have been harshly critical of funds to aid it, swift action was of the essence to accept Interior’s offer, before it could be undone by the new Congress.
Rep. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat who represents the 36th Congressional district, applauded the vote.
“IID's vote takes a significant step toward adding more shovels to the ground using this bold investment to protect the public's health and address this environmental crisis," he said. "I am very grateful for the collaborative all-hands-on-deck partnership between Federal, State, Tribal, and local agencies to address the Salton Sea.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: IID approves possible $250 million Salton Sea deal with feds, state