Water Rights and the Salton Sea

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For a long time now, the Salton Sea has been close to the bottom of the priority list when it comes to water allocations and this has placed the Sea in a very tight spot. We have discussed extensively the consequences of allowing the Sea to dry and the temporary solutions outlined under the QSA. It has been recognized by the many stakeholders that the Salton Sea needs help but not much has been done. The Salton Sea needs a long-term solution that could give it hope for a sustainable future. Given the current conditions of the Salton Sea and the implications of allowing it to dry, perhaps an ambitious solution would be to incorporate the Salton Sea into future revisions of regional water laws.

Since the beginning, water laws in the western US were developed as determined by climate, geography, and the needs of the public [1]. These water rights have been modified accordingly over time to meet the needs of an ever-changing landscape. As an example, during the active mining years in California, water laws were modified under the Mining Act of 1866 to accommodate the needs of the mining industry [1].

Hydraulic mining at the Malakoff Diggings in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Credit: Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Along with mining, the Salton Sea represents a new parameter that affects a wide array of individuals and industry. Why not attempt to incorporate the Salton Sea into new water laws? Although one can argue that the current scarcity of water calls for better allocations other than discharging it into the Sea, it is also necessary to recognize the great environmental and economic costs of a drying Sea. Water right experts in the early 90s identified that western water rights should be based on three fundamental principles: conservation, equality, and ecology [2]. In this case, the Salton Sea represents an ecological parameter that deserves attention.

As previously mentioned, the Salton Sea has always been a low priority, resulting in its current state. For example, during the early 90s, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) entered an agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to provide the IID with more efficient irrigation technologies in exchange for water transfers of the conserved water [3]. Both the IID and the MWD recognized that their deal would affect the Salton Sea, yet nothing was done and there were not any water laws in place to prevent it. Now, with the agreements under the QSA coming to expiration we are back to the same situation.

Although the incorporation of the Salton Sea into western water laws would be a difficult task, it should be something to consider to ensure the survival of the Sea. If exceptions were made in the past for mining and agriculture, the Salton Sea can and should also get its turn to be protected by water rights, especially considering the great economic, ecological and social benefits of preventing the Sea from drying up.

Written by Miguel Garcia

  1. Western state water right permitting procedures. Western States Water Council. November 1992.
  2. Searching out the headwaters: change and discovery in western water policy. Bates S.F., Getches D.H., McDonnell L.J., Wilkinson C.F. 1993..
  3. Water transfers in the west: Efficacy, equity, and the environment. National research council. 1992.

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