Senate Committee hears of environmental impacts to Colorado River Plan

November 10, 2001

California State Senator Sheila Kuehl's Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee held an informational hearing this week in Santa Monica…

California State Senator Sheila Kuehl’s Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee held an informational hearing this week in Santa Monica to hear testimony about environmental issues impacting the implementation of the state’s Colorado River Plan. California could be faced with the loss of a large share of its Colorado River water supply unless legislation is approved to help implement a key component of that plan, the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA).

The amount of water at risk, 700,000 acre-feet, is more than half the amount that urban Southern California currently receives every year from the river. It is about the same amount of water imported for use by the nearly 3 million people living in San Diego County.

“Implementation of the QSA is critical to avoid a devastating water shortage beginning in 2003,” said Maureen A. Stapleton, San Diego County Water Authority general manager. “The water shortage created would impact the entire state and force Southern California to increase its use of water from Northern California, compounding the challenges faced by the environmentally fragile environment of the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary. This hearing was an important forum for Californians to learn about this important issue.”

California has a basic yearly apportionment of 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, but in recent years has used up to 5.2 million acre-feet. For many years, the state was able to take this additional water because Arizona and Nevada were not using their full apportionments. In recent years, however, those states have begun using their full share of Colorado River water; California has depended on declarations of surplus water conditions on the Colorado River by the Secretary of the Interior to fill the gap between the state’s basic allocation and its demand. But the other Colorado River Basin states and the Secretary have made it clear that California must bring its use in alignment with its allocation. The California Plan was developed by the seven Colorado River Basin states to implement a planned, orderly reduction in California’s Colorado River use. To prevent the shock of an abrupt reduction of this magnitude, the states and the federal government agreed to provide 15 years of continued surplus water contingent on achievement of certain California Plan implementation milestones. If the milestones are not met, the surplus water could be suspended and California will face a catastrophic water shortage.

The QSA component of the California Plan includes a complex set of water conservation programs and transfer agreements that will move water from agricultural to urban use within the state, without harming existing water users. Additionally, a number of groundwater storage and conjunctive use projects are planned to better manage future water supplies. California’s Colorado River water agencies – including the San Diego County Water Authority, Coachella Valley Water District, Imperial Irrigation District and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – have set aside historic differences to work together, committing billions of dollars to implement this plan. These agencies are on the verge of historic accomplishments, reducing the state’s average annual demand on the river by 800,000 acre-feet and resolving decades-old conflicts.

The only major unresolved issue that impedes the timely execution of the Quantification Settlement is how to address the water transfer’s temporal effect on accelerating Salton Sea salinity and any resulting impact to state and federal endangered species and state fully protected species at the sea. The transfer is expected to cause the deteriorating sea to go “super saline” 1 to 9 years sooner than without the transfers because less agricultural drainage water – the sea’s only water supply — would be flowing into the sea.

The deadlines for the QSA and its water transfer were based on the assumption that any impact to the Salton Sea’s endangered species would have been resolved already under the federal Salton Sea Reclamation Act of 1998. The Act recognized that the sea will become super saline, unless a comprehensive solution is found and implemented. The Act required a feasibility study of reclamation options that assumed water conservation and transfers would reduce agricultural runoff into the sea by up to 500,000 acre-feet per year. It was intended that Congress would make a sea restoration decision based on that study, which was directed to be completed in January 2000. But the study still has not been released and is not expected for some time. Without a congressional decision on how to reclaim the already deteriorating sea, it is difficult to independently assess the impacts of the water transfer on the sea’s endangered species and what mitigation could be made.

The Salton Sea also provides habitat for species the state deems “fully protected,” meaning no take of these species is allowed; mitigation is not an option. Implementation of the California Plan may result in the incidental take of some of these species.

In order to ensure that the QSA is implemented on schedule and surplus water continues to flow to California, all environmental compliance processes must be completed and all state and federal permits and approvals must be issued on an expedited basis. This means that the draft water transfer environmental impact report/statement must be issued by early 2002.

At the federal level, this week the House Resources Committee favorably reported H.R. 3208, the Western Water Security Enhancement Act, introduced by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside. Included in the legislation was direction to the Secretary of the Interior to use her best efforts to assist California in reducing its use of Colorado River water consistent with the provisions of the QSA. Additionally the committee authorized $60 million in federal funds to address environmental impacts upon the Salton Sea as a result of the QSA. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-SF has also been actively engaged in this issue and has been working with the Bush Administration seeking an administrative solution to this problem. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) is keenly aware of this impending water crisis and has also sponsored legislation, H.R. 2764 which would resolve the federal endangered species issues associated with the Salton Sea. On the state side, Assemblyman David Kelley (R-Idyllwild) is working through AB 1561 to ensure the necessary compliance with the California Endangered Species Act and the Fully Protected Species Act so that the EIR/EIS can proceed, and the State Water Resources Control Board can move forward on the water transfer permitting processes.

“I applaud the leadership shown by these individuals,” said Stapleton. It is critical that all California’s elected officials in both the state Legislature and Congress put their full support behind these efforts to ensure that the QSA is executed on schedule and the state’s water reliability is not compromised.”

The San Diego County Water Authority is a public agency serving the San Diego region as a wholesale supplier of water from Northern California and the Colorado River. The agency works through its 23 member agencies to provide a safe, reliable water supply to more than 2.9 million county residents.

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  • The San Diego County Water Authority sustains a $268 billion regional economy and the quality of life for 3.3 million residents through a multi-decade water supply diversification plan, major infrastructure investments and forward-thinking policies that promote fiscal and environmental responsibility. A public agency created in 1944, the Water Authority delivers wholesale water supplies to 23 retail water providers, including cities, special districts and a military base.

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