A state judge has overturned a celebrated 2003 deal governing the state's use of Colorado River water supplies, a ruling that could tilt the equation for how Southern California's farms and cities share the scarce resource.
The Superior Court decision, released Thursday, sets in motion an appeals process as well as efforts to salvage the landmark pact.
"It is not the end," said Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, a major beneficiary of the deal.
The 2003 agreement put California on a schedule to wean itself from surplus deliveries of Colorado River water. Years in the making, the pact created a multibillion-dollar transfer of Imperial Valley irrigation water to San Diego and the Coachella Valley and also called for the restoration of the ailing Salton Sea.
Several environmental challenges were filed against the deal. In his final decision, Judge Roland L. Candee sidestepped those issues and ruled on a narrow contract matter involving funding to restore the Salton Sea.
But Candee also concluded that because restoration and other aspects of the pact were closely related, the agreement itself was not valid. That broad ruling surprised and delighted one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, who argued on behalf of landowners near the Salton Sea.
"I never anticipated I would win," said Malissa Hathaway McKeith.
Created a century ago by a breakaway diversion of the Colorado River, the sea has survived as a giant drainage pit for irrigation runoff from the Imperial Valley's sprawling agricultural operations, which get the lion's share of the state's Colorado River allotment.
But the water transfers to residential areas, which will gradually increase, mean there will be less farm runoff flowing into the increasingly salty inland lake.
"The [pact] has accelerated the death of the Salton Sea," argued McKeith. "It's 6 feet lower than it was in 2003, and that should not have happened.
"I don't believe water transfers should be permitted until the environmental and economic impacts are fully analyzed and addressed."
A receding sea, she said, will send contaminated dust from the lake bottom wafting over desert towns and field crops.
Parties to the 2003 agreement, including the Imperial Irrigation District, said they will pursue an appeal and ask for a stay to allow the water transfers to continue.
The irrigation district is set to receive $5.4 billion over the 75-year life of the transfer agreement.
Kevin Kelley, spokesman for the district, said the agency is in talks with the state and litigants over the restoration issue.
As part of the deal, the state and the irrigators committed to help pay for what will probably be a hugely expensive fix for the sea, an important stopover for migrating waterfowl.
But the judge found that the state's funding commitment was so open-ended it amounted to a blank check and therefore violated California's constitutional limits on state debt.
John Schlotterbeck, senior deputy general counsel at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a party to the deal, said it was too early to know the full implications of the ruling or how the judge's concerns might be remedied.
"It's really hard to say what the fix is going to be," he said.