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Judge rules against landmark 2003 state water pact

If the tentative ruling is upheld, the agreement aimed at reducing California's reliance on Colorado River water would be voided.

December 12, 2009|By Bettina Boxall

A state judge appears poised to throw out a landmark pact involving California's use of Colorado River water.

If upheld, Thursday's tentative ruling by a Sacramento County Superior Court judge would unravel a complex 2003 agreement that put the state on a timetable to reduce its reliance on the Colorado River.

Brokered by federal, state and regional officials, the deal also established a program of farm-to-city water sales that are playing a growing role in Southern California's water supply.

"It's very serious," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. "There will be appeals. It's going to be some time before we know what it all means and what the impact is."

Ironically, the action comes in a case in which Judge Roland L. Candee was asked to validate the agreement.

Examining the 13 contracts that make up the deal, Candee focused on those involving a state commitment to help fund restoration of the Salton Sea in Imperial County.

The judge concluded that the language amounted to a blank check in which the state was promising to fund restoration, even if it cost billions. Such an open-ended pledge, Candee found, violated the state Constitution.

"The court has no ability to sanction a way to contract around the Constitution," the 27-page ruling states. "It is clear to this court that if this contract language is validated, executive agencies of the state can contract for amounts well over the constitutional debt limit."

Concluding that all the agreements were linked, he invalidated the other contracts as well, even though he seemed to have no quibble with them.

"It certainly was not what we expected," said Kevin Kelley, spokesman for the Imperial Irrigation District, which launched the court action. "While it's clearly a cause for concern in the Imperial Valley, it's also of great concern to Southern California."

Candee set a Dec. 17 hearing for arguments on his tentative ruling, and water officials said this week's opinion was not the final word. "It is not the end of the story," said Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority. "The water is continuing to flow."

San Diego is one of the major beneficiaries of the 2003 agreement, which allows the water-rich Imperial district to sell some of its Colorado River supplies to the authority. Combined with another arrangement, the San Diego region this year is getting nearly a quarter of its supplies through transfers under the accord. Those water sales are scheduled to increase over the years.

The transfers and Salton Sea restoration are intended to help lessen California's dependence on the Colorado River.

For decades the state took more than its legal allotment in the form of surplus deliveries. It agreed to phase out that surplus use over a period of years to free up supplies for other states on the river.

The pact also called for the state to help pick up the tab for restoration of the Salton Sea, an important stop for migrating waterfowl that is fed by irrigation runoff. The water transfers will eventually decrease that runoff, raising the salinity of the sea and compounding its environmental problems.

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

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