Federal Appeals Court Upholds 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement

Short Title
Federal Appeals Court Upholds 2003 QSA
Colorado River water transfers are vital part of San Diego County’s supply reliability efforts

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday rejected a legal challenge to the Secretary of the Interior’s approval of the Colorado River Water Delivery Agreement, one of more than 30 agreements that make up the Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreements. Approved in 2003, the QSA serves as the framework for delivery of Colorado River water in California, including the historic water transfer agreement between the San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District, known as IID.

The three-judge panel upheld a ruling by District Court Judge Anthony Battaglia that the Secretary of the Interior did not violate the National Environmental Policy Act or the Clean Air Act in approving the Colorado River Water Delivery Agreement.

Monday’s ruling strengthens a key component of water supply for the San Diego County Water Authority, which will receive 180,000 acre-feet of water this year as result of the Colorado River water transfers. By 2021, the QSA transfers will supply 280,000 acre-feet annually to San Diego County, enough to meet about one-third of the region’s water demands.

It was the second federal court decision rejecting challenges to components of the QSA.  Previously, the federal court rejected environmental challenges to the All American Canal Lining Project. In its 2007 decision in Consejo De Desarrollo Economico De Mexicali, A.C v. United States, the 9th Circuit dismissed the appeal of that decision as moot after Congress had adopted a law in 2006 that directed the Secretary of Interior to implement the lining project without delay.

“Once again, the courts have upheld water conservation and transfer programs that are the cornerstone of the Water Authority’s strategy to secure a reliable water supply for this region,” said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the Water Authority. “This landmark accord plays a vital role in protecting San Diego County from the worst effects of the statewide drought, and it improves water management across Southern California. The appeals court ruling affirms our position that the agreements are legally sound and will stand the test of time.”

Starting in the mid-1990s, the Water Authority spent eight years crafting and negotiating a water conservation and transfer agreement with the IID that became the cornerstone of the broader Colorado River QSA. The QSA also included an arrangement to transfer water conserved by lining portions of the All American and Coachella canals to San Diego County. Those agreements last between 45 and 110 years.

In addition to the federal lawsuits, various state court actions were filed that have lasted more than a decade. In December 2011, California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling that had invalidated the Water Authority-IID water transfer and a number of other QSA agreements. After affirming that the QSA did not violate the California Constitution and other laws, the appeals court sent the matter back to the trial court for litigation of remaining issues, including questions about whether the environmental impacts of the transfer agreement were properly assessed under California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

In July 2013, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly affirmed the CEQA compliance and rejected all remaining challenges. Several parties appealed Judge Connelly’s decision. The remaining state court appeal is now pending in the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento. 

For background about the QSA and to read Monday’s ruling, go to www.sdcwa.org/quantification-settlement-agreement.