SAN DIEGO — A federal court Friday lifted an injunction that had blocked the lining of the All-American Canal in Imperial Valley, a project meant to provide water to arid San Diego County and help California learn to live on a "water diet."
Environmentalists and business interests on both sides of the border had sued to block the $200-million-plus project on the grounds that it would devastate farmers in the Mexicali Valley, where the aquifer is replenished by seepage from the canal.
But a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected the litigants' arguments and said that a law signed by President Bush in December orders the Bureau of Reclamation to begin the project without delay.
Although more litigation is possible -- water disputes in the Western U.S. are said to be measured in decades, not years -- backers of the canal project said they hope the ruling ends the legal wrangling.
"This is truly a Good Friday," said Daniel S. Hentschke, attorney for the San Diego County Water Authority. "This is enormously important for San Diego and the entire state."
The lining project is meant to provide 67,000 acre-feet of water -- enough for the home uses of more than 500,000 people -- to San Diego County.
Without much groundwater, the county's decades-long hunt for its "own water" has taken on the aspect of a crusade. For the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, lining the canal would mean it would sell less water to San Diego County and thus have it available for other customers in its six-county region. "It's a zero-sum game," said MWD assistant general manager Roger Patterson.
The canal takes water from the Colorado River and distributes it to 500,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley, along with a sprinkling of cities with a total of about 140,000 residents. Built in 1940, the canal is unlined. It parallels the U.S.-Mexico border before turning northward.
For decades, seepage from the canal was not a problem. The Imperial Irrigation District has the largest entitlement of Colorado River water of any agency in the seven-state region that depends on the snaking river that winds from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. But in the 1990s, other states began blasting California as a "water hog" because districts in coastal Southern California were taking more than their entitlement.
After arm-twisting by the federal government, the Imperial district agreed in 2003 to sell water to San Diego County, the largest transfer of water from farms to cities in the nation. The federal government, which acts as "water-master," has warned that the days of California taking more than its share from the Colorado River would soon end.
The overall sales agreement is still in the courts. Water from lining the All-American and Coachella Valley canals is only part of the agreement. Lining of the Coachella Valley canal, which will provide 26,000 acre-feet, has been completed.
Environmentalists and business interests sued on numerous grounds, among them that the project would damage the environment, would violate various agreements with Mexico and is racially discriminatory because most of the farmers who would have their water reduced are Latino. About 76,000 acres of farmland in the Mexicali Valley would be harmed, the plaintiffs alleged.
U.S. Circuit Court Judge Sidney R. Thomas, writing for a three-judge panel, rejected all the arguments, lifting an injunction issued last year. Among other reasons, Thomas said that a 1944 treaty says that the Mexican government is allowed 1.5-million acre-feet of water from the river annually and is entitled to no more.