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Environment Report: Lawsuits Are a Weapon in Major Water Conflicts

Support is building for a giant water battery, the city’s recycling revenue has plummeted and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

The Salton Sea, which spans Imperial and Riverside counties, is California largest lake. / Photo by Jesse Marx

In court, the California Environmental Quality Act is a familiar obstacle to projects large and small — housing developments, solar projects, even bike lanes. It’s also lately become a weapon in the state’s major water conflicts.

Last week, the Imperial Irrigation District filed a CEQA lawsuit trying to block a deal among seven states that could lead to further rations of the Colorado River in the near future.

Even though environmental law doesn’t apply outside of California, Imperial is the largest holder of Colorado water rights in the country — it has dibs on as much river water as Arizona and Nevada combined — and is suing other California agencies that have agreed to give up water if there’s a shortage.

Another new water-related CEQA case is perhaps even more unexpected: The federal government is suing the state to block new regulations from going into effect at the State Water Resources Control Board. The regulations are designed to ensure that three of Northern California’s major waterways — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers — do not dry up during the summer.

What dries up these rivers, which used to be filled with fish? A combination of the State Water Project, which supplies water to Southern California, and the Central Valley Project, which is a federally run water system to help farmers.

The federal government claims the state’s regulations to protect the environment violate CEQA because the Central Valley Project will have less water to sell to farmers, cities and industry or set aside for recreation. In other words, the federal government is using an “environmental quality act” in an attempt to take water away from the actual environment.

The federal government is making two separate arguments. First, it’s claiming state regulators failed to follow CEQA. Second, is says the state is frustrating the will of Congress, which created the Central Valley Project.

Both lawsuits could largely be seen, as many CEQA lawsuits are, as an attempt to win in court what was not won by the bureaucratic and political process. Environmentalists routinely use the law to block environmental destruction that elected officials green-lighted. But the law is also used to frustrate actions or extract concessions.

The Trump administration has repeatedly promised to loosen environmental restrictions to provide more water to Central Valley farmers.

Imperial is trying to get money to help save the Salton Sea, which was formed over a century ago by floodwater from the Colorado River and is now California’s largest lake.

There is some irony in that distinction. In the past, the largest lake was in the Central Valley — but farmers there swallowed up all of its water. The same farmers who are now looking to the Trump administration to stop regulations meant to improve river health.

The Salton Sea, on the other hand, was consistently filled by runoff from Imperial farmers who diverted the Colorado River to irrigate their desert crops. About 15 years ago, San Diego signed a deal to buy water from Imperial that required farmers to idle farmland and ensure there was less runoff.

Generally, runoff is considered wasted water, except that in Imperial it was a major source of water to the now-landlocked lake.

Now, more water evaporates from the Salton Sea each year than runs into it. Gradually, a dusty lake bed is exposed and public health officials worry that this dust will fly into the air and then into lungs, adding to the already terrible air quality and worsening respiratory health in Imperial.

Imperial officials are concerned that less Colorado River water coming to California will mean less water running into the sea. But they also argue it wasn’t clear how California could have signed any deal to share a Colorado River shortage without the cooperation of Imperial, which has more rights to the river’s water than anyone in the West.

Water Officials: Water Battery Better Than Other Batteries

In a new paper, the city of San Diego and the San Diego County Water Authority and several of their consultants argue their plan to construct a giant new hydroelectric facility in East County can provide cheaper energy storage than large-scale battery projects.

Together with a private company, the city and the Water Authority would build what amounts to a giant water battery. The project is designed to make money off daily changes in energy prices and provide enough green energy to power 325,000 homes. When power is cheap, water would be pumped uphill to a newly created reservoir; when power is expensive, the water would be released to generate power that the agencies would then sell.

This kind of hydroelectric facility is known as a “pumped storage” operation. The authors, including UCSD energy expert David Victor, a consultant for the city, found that despite falling prices for electric batteries, “batteries will remain overall more expensive than pumped storage — possibly 50 percent more expensive than pumped storage.” That means if the city wants to find a way to store cheap solar power for use at night, it may be best to do the water project.

Several years ago, some Water Authority board members said they were uncomfortable with the project, because its overall return on investment didn’t look too good at the time, but officials there seem to have become more comfortable with the idea. The city is also making a major bet that it can provide cheap green energy in the future.

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