A judge invalidated a landmark pact Thursday intended to curtail Southern California's overuse of water from the Colorado River but left the deal in place during an appeals period.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald Candee ruled that many of the contracts enacted as part of the 2003 agreement were invalid because they obliged the state to pay for environmental restoration work with funds that lawmakers never appropriated.
Candee, however, allowed water shipments to continue for 30 days after he formally enters his judgment.
The ruling, if upheld during expected appeals, could unravel a deal that ended years of bickering over how to divide Colorado River water among California and six western states: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The judge's decision could carry consequences for those drought-stricken states, which based their own water agreements on California's Colorado River deal.
Malissa McKeith, who represents opponents of the deal, said the judge's ruling would benefit the environment and return tax money that was unfairly seized from state coffers in the deal.
"Today's ruling gives the state and local agencies a new chance to make things right," she said.
Kevin Kelley, spokesman for the Imperial Irrigation District, said an appeal was planned, among other actions.
The pact allowed more than 30 million acre-feet of water — the amount of water that 30 million families of four would use in a typical year — to move from farms to cities in Southern California over a 75-year period.
It also committed the state to help finance the restoration of the Salton Sea, an enormous desert lake that is fed by the Colorado River irrigation channels that were being diverted.
The agreement was enacted through a series of contracts between the Imperial Irrigation District, which supplies water to Imperial Valley farms, and water districts in Los Angeles, San Diego and other jurisdictions.
Four of the agencies agreed to pay up to $133 million toward restoration of the Salton Sea, which was formed in 1905 when floodwaters from the Colorado River burst past a series of dams.
One estimate in court documents pegged the total cost at $193 million, which would leave the state on the hook for $60 million.
Candee's ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed in 2003 by the Imperial water agency that sought the court's blessing of the deal in anticipation of challenges by farmers and landowners who lost water.
But instead of validating the deal, the judge sided with its opponents over the Salton Sea issue and voided the arrangement.
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