From The Palm Springs Desert Sun (Janet Wilson):
The Imperial Irrigation District board of directors voted Tuesday to allow access across its lands for critically needed state wetlands projects at the Salton Sea, designed to tamp down dangerous dust storms and give threatened wildlife a boost. In exchange, California will shoulder the maintenance and operations of the projects, and the state’s taxpayers will cover the costs of any lawsuits or regulatory penalties if the work goes awry.
Tuesday’s vote clears a key hurdle to constructing 3,700 acres around the heavily polluted New River at the south end of the lake, implementing what’s known as the Species Conservation Habitat plan. It’s one of the larger pieces of a stalled ten year pilot Salton Sea Management Plan to address increasing public health concerns and massive wildlife losses at California’s largest inland water body.
“I feel a lot more optimistic now that we finally got this step done, which has been bedeviling us for some time,” said Bruce Wilcox, Assistant Secretary of Natural Resources overseeing Salton Sea efforts. “It feels good. Now we just need to move on to the next step.”
Tuesday’s agreement clears a particularly thorny issue that stopped the larger wetlands projects in their tracks: Who’s responsible if something goes wrong? Neither IID nor previous state officials were willing to budge, but new California water board chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel in March gave state natural resources staff and IID until May 1 to strike an agreement, and told them to report back to him by June…
The threat of lawsuits is not an idle one. Farmers along the edge of the 350 square mile sea — twice as large as Lake Tahoe — have sued before and say they could sue again if state work harms their crops, or, conversely, if nothing is done to stop increasing air quality problems.
“If the government doesn’t do anything about it and all the dust comes into our crops and kills them, well then, we have a pretty good case,” said Juan DeLara, risk manager for Federated Mutual Insurance, which leases 1,000 acres of farmland on the north end of the sea to a grower. DeLara is also head of the Salton Sea Action Committee and would-be developer of a 4,900 acre housing, commercial and recreational project at the sea’s north end.
It’s unclear on what specific legal grounds farmers could sue. Past runoff from their fields included pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer discharge into the shimmering blue water body, which began life as an agricultural sump. But it’s also agricultural runoff, mixed with naturally salty Colorado River irrigation water, that is keeping the sea afloat, so to speak. Without the runoff, it would dry even faster…
Martinez, IID’s general manager, said he was not familiar with case law on the issue, but said, “any time someone’s business suffers as a result of some action, they’re going to look for the biggest pockets out there to help meet their costs.”
He said that concern is part of what motivated IID to dig in its heels and formally nail down that the state would bear responsibility for Salton Sea restoration before allowing access. Another big factor, he said, was that California officials agreed to be responsible for restoring the sea in a 2003 multi-party agreement between them, federal officials, IID and other water districts…
The next steps for the plan include finalizing the easement documents and seeking bids.