Court Upholds California’s Landmark Quantification Settlement Agreement Involving Colorado River Water Transfers - Trial Court Validates QSA-Related Agreements Relating to Large Transfer of Colorado River Water and Approves CEQA Review

by Best Best & Krieger LLP

The Sacramento Superior Court last week issued its ruling on the long-running coordinated cases challenging the state’s landmark Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), validating the QSA and eleven related agreements while denying the remaining legal challenges. The QSA and related agreements, approved in 2003, settled disputes regarding certain rights to Colorado River water in California and approved a major water transfer from Imperial Irrigation District to San Diego County Water Authority, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Coachella Valley Water District. The court’s June 4, 2013 ruling is the latest decision in more than a decade of litigation challenging these agreements and their associated environmental review.

The most recent legal decision considered claims remanded to the trial court by the California Court of Appeal in its December, 2011 decision. On remand, the trial court considered whether the QSA and related agreements were “ultra vires” (approved without proper authority), whether approvals of the agreements complied with the Ralph M. Brown Act, and whether two environmental documents prepared for the QSA and related agreements complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Ultimately, the trial court rejected the ultra vires and Brown Act claims and upheld the environmental review.

One of the most contentious issues in the case involved the impact of the QSA’s water conservation and transfer actions on the Salton Sea. The court addressed the adequacy of the review of a number of environmental issues, including potential air quality impacts to the Salton Sea, as well as the use of a future baseline. Among its decisions on specific environmental issues, the court found that the choices the lead agencies made as to how to analyze air quality impacts were supported by evidence in the record. The court also found that the use of a baseline consisting of existing and predicted future conditions of the Salton Sea was appropriate to measure the impacts of the long-term water transfers. It denied project opponents’ arguments that more alternatives should have been considered and found that the water agencies’ conclusion that use and transfer of water to the San Diego area would not induce growth was supported by record evidence. The court also addressed the nature of changes made to the agreements after the environmental documentation was completed and the procedural decision of water districts to designate themselves as “co-lead agencies” under CEQA, finding that these decisions did not violate CEQA. As a result, the court concluded that the record supported the lead agencies’ conclusions relating to CEQA and upheld the validity of the QSA and eleven related agreements.

Best Best & Krieger attorneys were part of the legal team that secured this decision by rigorously litigating on behalf of the Coachella Valley Water District, as well as those earlier decisions upholding this landmark agreement.

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