More efficient agricultural water use sounds uncontroversial. Due to increased agricultural efficiency, about 300,000 acre-feet1 of water per year is made available and is being reallocated from the Imperial Irrigation District to Los Angeles, San Diego and Coachella. This increase in efficiency and transfer of conserved water, however, is predicted to cause a suite of environmental and public health harms as the region’s agricultural sump (the Salton Sea) shrinks. Southern Californian water politics are famously messy, contentious and high stakes. The State struggles with the need to increase its use efficiency and decrease its overall use of its allocation of Colorado River water that supplies Californian south coast cities and inland agriculture. Local, State and federal parties involved in these water allocation decisions conflict over how to mitigate the externalities as there is no clear assignment of liabilities. This case study uses historical documents and recent policy elite interviews to construct a broad understanding of the nature of the dilemma. By engaging with this case, readers will better understand the relative positions of the rural water supplier and the urban water users in the largest water transfer in US history, and understand that increasing use efficiency in one arena—agriculture—does not always work out best for the environment.

INTRODUCTION

Management of water resources in the arid southwest and western United States is an area of perennial political conflict and has practical management challenges. Regarding water allocations among and within basin states of the Colorado River, hard decisions are currently being made by state policymakers and water managers as the need for conservation grows with each year that the biggest reservoirs shrink. Because these conservation decisions often mean a stark zero-sum game between uses of subtractable water resources, the policy decisions require careful deliberation and rationale. In southern California, policymakers and public agencies took a sometimes collaborative and sometimes adversarial approach in reallocating a major portion of California’s share of the Colorado River, without actually reducing their overall use of water. The results set up the policy actors for a major and important dilemma to tackle after the water had been transferred, as a new set of environmental externalities was born at the source of the water—the Salton Sea. Simply put, more water for the cities meant less water for the Sea.

Using historical policy documents, elite policymaker interviews and legal documents as sources, this case study describes the key players’ positions leading up to and after water reallocation. The purpose is to expose the complex set of policy positions among decision-makers and to uncover the major issues of contention and possibilities for cooperation. This study highlights the related policy dilemmas that arise out of water conservation and reallocation decisions, revealing major problems of environmental justice, wildlife conservation and public health that must be addressed.

CASE EXAMINATION

Colorado River Water Use in Southern California and the Salton Sea

The Colorado River is a source of urban and agricultural water for the seven so-called Basin States—Wyoming, Colorado and Utah in the upper basin and Arizona, Nevada and California in the lower. Water allocations to Basin States were set by the Colorado River Compact of 1922, based on an assumed 16.5 million acre-feet per year (maf/y)—a number that has since been shown to be very optimistic. Until the last several years, neither Arizona nor Nevada in the lower basin had used their full allocations; the upper basin states routinely do not use their full allocations, but increases are expected over the next 50 years (US Bureau of Reclamation). The Colorado River is presently over allocated. Even with all of the Basin States not taking their full allocations, the reservoirs are, and have been, shrinking.

California has the highest allocation of 4.4 maf/y of water from the Colorado River. The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and two other irrigation districts in southern California hold the highest priority water rights in the state. The IID delivers Colorado River water to one of the most heavily irrigated agricultural areas in the country and is entitled to 70% of the state’s total allocation [1]. The second largest allocation goes to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) which supplies water to Los Angeles and over 300 other cities (and 19 million people) in southern California (MWD).

Most of California’s allotment is transported to the IID (see Figure 1) for irrigation in the Imperial Valley. Agricultural runoff and subsurface drains flow into the Salton Sea2, a large inland lake with no outlet. As water evaporates, pollutants and natural salts concentrate. Once a tourist destination, the Sea is also officially designated habitat for migrating birds and endangered fish; a 32,766-acre tract of it was designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1930 [2]. However, as the Sea became more saline and polluted, stocked sport fish species declined, as did associated recreation and tourism. In addition, as fish species diversity and populations declined, so did the documented bird species using the Refuge on the Pacific Flyway.

FIGURE 1.

Salton sea quantification settlement agreement area.

FIGURE 1.

Salton sea quantification settlement agreement area.

As the last state on the Colorado River, California historically enjoyed up to an additional 1 maf/y of “surplus” water not used by the other Basin States. As upstream states began using more of their allocations, some requested that the Secretary of the Interior require California to reduce its water use to its legal allocation [3, 4]. In 2001, Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed the Interim Surplus Guidelines, giving California 15 years to reduce its overall water use and eliminate its reliance on “surplus” water or face reductions in contracted water delivery [5]. Foreshadowing this decision, in 1984, the California State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) found that IID’s irrigation practices wasted water that could be put to beneficial use elsewhere, in violation of the “beneficial use” clause of California’s Constitution [6].

In 2003, a new water reallocation agreement, the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), transferred about 300,000 af/y of Colorado River water from irrigated agriculture to urban uses on the southern coasts, made possible by more efficient irrigation practices that were funded in part by those urban users. This is ~23% of the total average inflows to the Salton Sea prior to the QSA [7]. According to experts, the transfer would reduce agricultural outflow into the Salton Sea and cause the shoreline to recede more rapidly than it otherwise would, exposing friable lakebed and reducing wildlife habitat and food sources [3, 8, 9].

As the lakebed is exposed and erodes in the wind, it can increase particulate matter in the air and produce large-scale public health problems related to respiratory illness. In other words, part of the value of the Salton Sea is to simply keep lakebed sediment from entering the airshed. Policy makers were aware of these risks. Writers of the QSA tried to make public entities liable to ameliorate public harms of such transfers. All of the parties would share some of the liability, captured as $30 million contributed by the QSA parties for “environmental mitigation costs” and managed by the QSA Joint Powers Authority. The bulk of the costs to mitigate the effects of this transfer would fall to the State. However, liability could not be defined until it was known how much of the total effects could be clearly attributed to the water transfer and how much were attributed to natural processes already occurring.

Everyone interviewed for this study recalled the negotiations that led to the QSA as extremely long—some noting 20- or 22-hour meetings—and very intense, rife with mistrust and bad feelings often stemming from old slights or disagreements. According to Bruce Wilcox, the Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy, (State of California), before and during the negotiations, none of the parties were getting along. There was a lack of communication, and the State and the US Bureau of Reclamation were putting tremendous pressure on IID to sell the water, arguing that water flowing into the Sea was not a beneficial use. (To the IID, keeping the water in the Sea was a beneficial use.)

The Bureau of Reclamation had tried to cut the IID’s allocation in the late 1990’s, but the IID sued, and the courts ruled in their favor. The IID initially balked at the proffered QSA settlements because of historical distrust of the Bureau and they feared further cuts in the future. In response, then Speaker of the California Assembly Bob Hertzberg stated that the (State) legislature could just disband the District if it continued to balk at the QSA [10]. Andy Horne, then president of the IID, recalled: “IID was being threatened with having their water orders cut, having the federal government take over their water deliveries, and with being disbanded.” [11]. Bruce Kuhn, the IID Board member with the deciding vote, recalled the agreement as being “more draconian than just contentious”. Tina Shields, the Water Manager for the IID said of the agreement, “It wasn’t a collaboration at all—it was a smack down” [12].

At the end, the IID signed, with Andy Horne as the lone vote against. Although the final agreement was praised by Robert Hargreaves, general counsel to the Salton Sea Authority, it was noted in other interviews as being hard won, but not entirely satisfactory to all parties. “Yes, everyone agreed and finally signed on, but it wasn’t like we liked it, or that we had any trust that it [would] work” [13].

Anticipating the externalities of the transfer, the Water Board issued Water Rights Order 2002-0013 which provided for 15 years of freshwater, conserved from a temporary field fallowing program in the IID, to be delivered to the Salton Sea through December 31, 2017. The ~200,000 af/y “mitigation flows” were designed to mimic the timing and quantity of the usual agricultural run-off to help mitigate impacts to aquatic habitats and maintain the extent of the lake [14]. Like the 15-year window in the Interim Surplus Guidelines of 2001, this 15-year time period was a buffer period to give California time to develop and implement mitigation measures. Now that the mitigation flows have ended without a plan having been in place, the Sea shore is receding.

Vivien Maissoneuve, the state’s program manager for the Salton Sea Program, stated that even though the transfer would speed up the drying of the Salton Sea, rural water needed to be redistributed to growing urban areas, and this was the only available source [15]. “To the extent that environmental impacts are not fully mitigated, and to the extent that fallowing may result in adverse socioeconomic impacts, the public interest in the transfer outweighs those adverse impacts. . . . Implementation of the transfer approved by this order will benefit not just the parties to the transfer, but the state as a whole” [16]. The socioeconomic impacts referred to include the possibilities for increased air pollution and the negative effects on the local economies surrounding the Salton Sea, both of which impact a relatively poor, largely minority, and rural population.

The QSA parties—IID, Coachella Valley Water District, and San Diego County—provided the initial $130 million (in 2003 dollars) to develop mitigation projects in the Salton Sea and an additional $30 million for restoration work [17], most of which will be spent on developing plans. It is anticipated that the QSA parties’ funding will be gone by 2025 [8, 18]. All additional restoration or mitigation work would be the responsibility of the State; “Under the QSA, once the local water agencies fulfill their mitigation contributions, the State will become responsible for any additional mitigation costs” [8].

Planning to mitigate harms continues. Proposition 68 passed in June 2018 is slated to provide at least $200 million to the Salton Sea for dust mitigation and habitat restoration projects. The Draft Salton Sea Management Program Phase 1: 10-Year Plan, produced by the California Natural Resources Agency in 2017, details a smaller and more sustainable Sea made by constructing a set of ring lakes around the edge of the Sea as wildlife habitat and using various dust suppression techniques to keep lakebed sediment from eroding. The QSA parties and negotiators do not all agree that the Plan is sufficient or actionable, and some fear that public health and environmental harms are inevitable.

Current Stakeholder Positions and New Problems

Legislation that supported the QSA called for the State to develop a plan and a preferred alternative for ecosystem restoration including air quality mitigation. The $9.2 billion price tag on the 2009 preferred alternative was steep and complicated by the 2008 $14.4 billion state budget deficit [7]. Tina Shields called the preferred alternative a “. . . true collaboration. It was a Christmas tree with an ornament on it for everyone” [12]. However, implementation has stalled. Except for State employees, all interviewees claimed that the lack of accountability at the State level has been the biggest administrative obstacle the parties have faced. Bruce Wilcox acknowledged that the State had not moved on Salton Sea restoration in over 10 years, citing on-going litigation and that the extreme complexity of the issues at the Sea proved too daunting to undertake [18].

In 2014, the IID petitioned the Water Board to require State action, prompting the Water Board to conduct public workshops on the Salton Sea and its restoration. This also resulted in the creation of the Assistant Secretary for Salton Sea Policy (Mr. Wilcox’s position) and a Task Force, charged with developing a plan. On March 15, 2017, the IID filed another motion with the Water Board to hold a hearing regarding the State’s continued inaction. Shortly after, the California Natural Resources Agency issued a draft of its first phase of a 10-year restoration plan.

The 2017 hearings resulted in a revised Water Order containing milestones for the State to meet with measurable annual mitigation or restoration acreages. As of the first quarter of 2018, the State had not implemented any restoration or mitigation projects. The Salton Sea Authority, IID, the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service implemented small restoration projects themselves. At the State Salton Sea Program, Mr. Maisonneuve contended that his office was doing what it can, but it was constrained by ongoing resource coordinating conflicts and permitting requirements. He also acknowledged the slow start to the 10-Year Plan, but said he is working to develop better relationships with federal and local officials, and allowed that the State must regain their trust by doing what it says it will do [15].

Over the course of the QSA negotiations and after, a broad consensus emerged about the expected effects of the transfer, in terms of benefits to urban areas, conservation of agricultural water and the environmental, public health and socioeconomic harms likely to occur around the Salton Sea. Policy actors did and do continue to meet regularly. However, the created shared knowledge and ongoing face-to-face meetings have not produced bottom-up cooperation or assignment of responsibilities despite a shared interest in resolving the problems. The biggest hurdle identified was the assignment of mitigation liability [4, 15]. While the State has the liability on paper to address the bulk of the costs of mitigation and restoration at the Sea, beyond the aforementioned $133 and $30 million responsibilities of the parties, the bounds of that liability have not been determined.

Liability in natural resource mitigations is bound by the baseline conditions. Adverse impacts of a decision to a particular resource that occur after the baseline is established can be more readily attributed to that decision [19]. The Salton Sea ecosystem was already naturally in a downward trend across the spectrum of resources, so it is difficult to draw the lines that would become the resources’ environmental baselines for the assignment of liability. This is the lock that remains on the agreement, and without an authority to determine the baseline conditions, assign liability, and determine penalties for nonconformance, there is likely to be little in the way of mitigation on the ground.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

Presently, the only projects being implemented on the ground are a small restoration project on the north end of the Sea, funded and developed by the Torres-Martinez tribe and funded by the state, and a small US Fish and Wildlife Service wetlands restoration project on the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge at the south end of the Sea. The State is still looking to implement pilot programs for scientific data collection and now is designing second tier projects without being informed by any data collected by initial projects.

As Robert Hargreaves said, “A big check from the state needs a big crisis.” State funding for substantial mitigation is unlikely until there is a demonstrable crisis. Despite calls from several policy actors for a more collaborative approach, no dramatic penalty for inaction exists, except the environmental, public health and socioeconomic harms to the region. From an economic cost-benefit perspective, the State was clear that overall benefits to the State outweigh the regional costs, whether mitigation occurs or not. The question remains then if the State will assign its own liability and fund mitigation without outside pressure.

This case demonstrates the complex political nature of water reallocation decisions in southern California. This is not a new phenomenon; however, this particular reallocation will produce a suite of new environmental, economic and public health externalities that have been fairly well researched, recognized and publicized. Although increasing use efficiency in one arena is a good place to start, it is rarely enough. Additionally, it is undeniable that water resources in southern California and elsewhere in the southwest will become scarcer while the human population grows rapidly. We are left with incredibly difficult dilemmas, value conflicts and trade-offs to deliberate.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. Why is simply increasing agricultural use efficiency and transferring the conserved water not enough to ease California’s water problems?

  2. From the State of California’s perspective, why might it be more feasible and appropriate to act reactively to public harms, rather than proactively?

  3. What responsibility do policymakers have to mitigate harms that will occur in part because of natural (non human-caused) shrinking of the Salton Sea?

  4. To you, does the Salton Sea represent a waste of scarce fresh water in the desert, or is it necessary to maintain it in order to control air pollution and support wildlife?

  5. If the QSA is inadequate to incentivize the State to mitigate harms of the water transfer, what sort of agreement or arrangement would be effective?

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

MT is the principal investigator of this study contributing to research question formulation, data collection and writing. JH is a supporting investigator of this study contributing to research question formulation, methodology and writing.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

1.

One acre-foot of water is approximately 325,854 gallons of water. One acre-foot per year is approximately 893 gallons per day.

2.

The Sea formed in 1910 when an irrigation accident delivered the entire flow of the Colorado River into the Salton Basin for almost 2 years.

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