The Colorado River has functioned as a linchpin for the development of the southwestern states and Southern California for more than a hundred years. But the limits of the river as a water source became painfully clear by the end of the 20th Century. With the annual demand on the Colorado far exceeding long-established entitlements, something had to be done. Given projected trends, the Colorado would never be able to satisfy existing claims, even if all the reservoirs along its main stem and tributaries were drained to dead pool.
The 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) stands as a major step toward a sustainable Colorado River policy. This pact consists of a number of transfer and conservation programs that allow California to reduce its demand on the river, maintaining it to 4.4 million acre feet annually for 75 years. The agreement also funds significant restoration programs for the polluted and dwindling Salton Sea.
The parties involved in the settlement are the San Diego County Water Authority (SDWA), the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), the State of California and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The agreement’s central component establishes the IID’s Colorado River entitlement at 3.1 million acre feet annually and the CVWD annual entitlements at 330,000 acre feet. It authorizes yearly water transfers of 200,000 acre feet from the IID to the SDCWA beginning in 2021 and continuing for 75 years. It also sanctions annual transfers of 110,000 acre feet from the IID to the MWD; transfers of 103,000 acre feet from the IID to the CVWD; and transfers ranging between 25,000 and 100,000 acre feet from the Palo Verde Irrigation District to the MWD.
The settlement also settles various disputes existing among the seven states and four agencies that divide the Colorado River’s water. Further, the QSA funds repairs for leaking portions of the All-American and Coachella Canals. This allows the conservation of about 96,000 acre feet of water yearly, with 80,000 acre feet transferred to the SDCWA annually for a period of 110 years. About 16,000 acre feet of the conserved water are transferred to several San Diego County Indian bands to settle a long-running water rights conflict.
Soon after its finalization, the QSA was litigated by numerous stakeholders in the Imperial Valley. In 2011, California’s Third District Court reversed a lower court decision that had invalidated several key components of the agreement. The matter was remanded to trial court, and a Sacramento Superior Court issued a final judgment in 2013, validating the QSA in toto and rejecting all challenges. Appeals followed, but the State Court of Appeal upheld the Superior Court order in a 2015 ruling.
The QSA shows that critical water resources can be accurately quantified and shared equitably, and it points to the inevitably of similar settlements for other California water sources, most notably the Sacramento/San Joaquin watershed and all major groundwater basins.