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Troubled Waters extended interviews

Troubled Waters: Extended Interview with the Imperial Irrigation District

Tina Shield, the Water Department Manager of IID, speaks on the QSA, why it was implemented, and the contention between the state and IID as water was forced from agricultural communities to urban areas.

Tina Shields: So the QSA stands for the Quantification Settlement Agreement, and it was a series of probably over 40 legal agreements, the goal of which was to reduce California's water use. Historically speaking, we have a limit of 4.4 million acre feet, but the urban areas particularly Los Angeles was drawing more off the river than what the entitlement was for. They're allowed to do that. The rules allow you to use other states' apportionments that aren't used but the state of Arizona decided that they wanted to maximize their use of their supply and they implemented a groundwater storage program in the late 1990s, that then caused them to use their full entitlement, which meant there was less water available for California.

Tina Shields: The challenge was that extra water had been being used by LA in the urban areas, who now saw a shortage in their supply, and the only means by which the political powers that be thought to solve that problem is to look at how to keep the pipeline full to Los Angeles, but IID having 70% of rights to Colorado River waters within California, we sort of became the solution to their problems. So there was a lot of pressure for our community to give up water, which of course, why would we do that and sacrifice our community for an urban area, but the compromise -- and I say "compromise" with a little bit of hesitation because our board, at least twice, and more formally, voted down the QSA, and said, "We don't like the terms. We think it's going to hurt our community," and then we were the subject to legal action by the federal government where they tried to reduce our water and take it from us. So ultimately the concerns had always been about the Salton Sea and what would happen as that shoreline receded and the community effects we would face just to try to prop up these urban areas, but the state of California passed legislation that required them to take on that restoration responsibility. That was an acknowledgment that for California as a whole it was important to do this ag[riculture] to urban transfer. But in exchange, they would step up and they would take over those consequential effects at the Salton Sea and implement projects. The state had that restoration responsibility. We, as a water district, had certain mitigation responsibilities but the Salton Sea issue is much larger. It isn't just a receding shoreline. It's the fact that that water going in is drainage water, and it's very salty and with evaporation due to us living in the desert, and a smaller supply, it's just going to get saltier and saltier.

Angela: Is the QSA limited? Does it expire?

Tina Shields: It has an initial 45 year term. There is a renewal option for another 35 years so it could be very extensive if those renewals are triggered, but we know now that it's going to go at least 45 years and that is approximately 300,000 acre feet of water that we have to conserve, but that's just one transfer. We already had transfers in place with the Metropolitan Water District, and these are all arising from litigation in the 1980s related to IIDs water use, so we sort of had an obligation to get more efficient but there's consequences to that. So the state of California said, "Hey, this is a big deal. We're going to take on that burden, and we're going to share it with you, IID. You need to implement these conservation programs and make that water available, but we're going to step in and we're going to help your community out." We held them to that, and unfortunately, they didn't do anything for 15 years. We sent mitigation water to the sea, and it really should have been a planning period for the state of California. And it became pretty apparent about 10 years in that the state of California was kicking the can. You know, they didn't have a problem now, you have to have a responsibility but the shoreline wasn't shrinking, and in the middle of the drought and a couple of years ago, IID said, 'You know what? We've had enough. We see what's going on here."

Tina Shields: We see that the state of California, while they sign the contract, they haven't done anything. And we threw a little bit of a hissy fit and said, "You know what? You're not going to affect our community and not do what you promised to do when we're doing what we promised to do. We're sending water every year to these urban areas, and you need to step up.' So we filed a petition with the state board and said, essentially, 'The state of California is not doing what it's obligated to do, and we're going to turn everything off. This is a legal breach of a contract. It's not what our community was promised. And we're not going to continue to send you that water if you're not going to live up to your restoration obligation.' "

Angela: When was the petition resolved?

Tina Shields: The petition was resolved in 2017. I think it was filed in 2014 or 2015, and we spent two to three years, working with various state representatives and local advocacy agencies such as the Salton Sea Authority and Imperial County, as well as the NGOs that were representing the environment, to say "Hey, California, you promised, and now it's time to pay the piper and step up to your obligation."

Click here to visit our Salton Sea Project section to learn more about the special report

Check out Part 1: Paradise Lost - Angela looks back at the history of the Salton Sea. Find out it's connection to Spanish explorers, and how it went from one of the most popular destination to abandoned and on the verge of disaster

Check Out Part 2: Toxic Exposure - Angela goes in-depth on the history of toxic outbreaks at the Salton Sea and its connection to the current health issues of those who live near the lake

Check Out Part 3: A Lake Languished - Angela look at the millions spent over the years to save the Salton Sea and why there is so little progress to show for it

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Jesus Reyes

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