SAN DIEGO (AP) -- A judge has upheld the nation's largest farm-to-city water transfer, ruling that state authorities in California properly considered the environmental effects of a landmark 2003 agreement over how to divide the state's share of water from the Colorado River.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly's 54-page ruling on Tuesday ends the latest chapter in a dispute over rights to the 1,450-mile waterway that flows from the Rocky Mountains and serves as a major source of drinking water and farming in California, six other Western states and much of northwest Mexico.
An appeals court backed the accord in December 2011, reversing a lower court that found the state of California violated its constitution by essentially writing a blank check to restore the rapidly shrinking Salton Sea in California's Imperial Valley. California's 3rd Appellate District Court sent the case to Connelly to weigh the narrower question — whether the agreement was properly reviewed under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Few involved in the case expected Connelly's ruling to threaten the accord, but the possibility unsettled water agencies in the Western United States, who consider it crucial to keeping an uneasy peace on the river.
"After 10 years of protracted litigation, today's ruling underscores and validates the durability of these historic accords," said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.
California long used more of the Colorado River than it was granted under agreements with Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico. Its overindulgence was never a big problem until Sunbelt cities like Phoenix witnessed explosive growth and other states clamored for their full share.
The 2003 accord between the state of California and several water agencies put the state on a diet, returning it to a limit established 80 years earlier of 4.4 million acre-feet of water a year, or enough to supply about 9 million homes. The centerpiece called for the Imperial Valley — a farming region that gets nearly 20 percent of the entire river — to sell water to San Diego.
The giant water transfer to San Diego accelerates the demise of California's largest lake, the Salton Sea. Measures to offset that decline were the core of the dispute between the agreement's supporters and its critics, which include environmental groups and Imperial Valley farmers.
Malissa McKeith, an attorney for Imperial Valley farmers, said Tuesday's ruling lets the state of California "off the hook" for restoring the Salton Sea, dealing a setback to nearby communities.