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Federal Officials Fail to Protect Salton Sea, Suit Says

Courts: Environmental groups, tribe sue to block plan to reduce safeguards for birds, fish to spur sale of Colorado River water to San Diego.


Two environmental groups and a Native American tribe filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court in Los Angeles alleging that the federal government has failed to protect the Salton Sea and its many imperiled species of fish and birds.

The lawsuit was filed by the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians and threatens to complicate plans by water officials to ensure that Southern California has a sufficient supply.

The suit challenges governmental efforts to reduce costly environmental protections afforded the Salton Sea in order to persuade Imperial County farmers to sell water to arid San Diego County.

That sale is a key component of the state strategy to reduce the amount of "surplus" Colorado River water the state uses and avoid a mandatory cutback by the U.S. Department of Interior.

The Imperial Irrigation District controls 75% of the state's assured allocation from the Colorado River, and voluntary sales from Imperial to coastal cities and suburbs is seen as a way to wean those regions from surplus water that, in fact, belongs to other states.

Still, Daniel Patterson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, said environmentalists are concerned that the Imperial-San Diego water deal will hurt the already ailing Salton Sea.

"The Bush administration's Interior Department is very behind-closed-doors," Patterson said. "They're moving full speed ahead with this major water transfer without much consultation and without a plan to restore the sea."

Although it has a host of environmental problems, the Salton Sea, which straddles Imperial and Riverside counties, is a vital stopping spot for millions of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway.

The lawsuit asks the court to order Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the Bureau of Reclamation to comply with the 1998 Salton Sea Reclamation Act.

The act calls for the federal government to devise a plan to stabilize the sea's rising salinity level and prohibit the continued loss of flora and fauna.

When farmers reduce the amount of water used for irrigation on Imperial Valley land, they reduce the drainage that sustains the Salton Sea.

With reduced runoff, the sea is in danger of becoming so saline that it cannot sustain populations of fish and birds.

One of the sticking points in a tentative agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority is who will pay for damage done to the Salton Sea.

Estimates on how much restoration will be required at the sea run to the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Under pressure from other states that depend on the Colorado River, California agreed to end its use of surplus water from the river within 15 years.

But if it cannot meet a Dec. 31 deadline for the Imperial-San Diego deal to be finalized, the Department of Interior has threatened an immediate cutback, which could prove crippling to the state's economy and to the lifestyle of coastal cities and suburbs.


Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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