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Two major California water agencies have settled a lawsuit that once threatened to derail a multi-state deal to protect a river that serves millions of people in the western United States amid an intense drought.

The Imperial Irrigation District, the largest recipient of water from the Colorado River, has sued the Metropolitan Water District twice in the past two years. The agencies announced Monday that they had reached a settlement that resolves the two lawsuits.

Under the agreement, Imperial can store water in Lake Mead at the Arizona-Nevada border under Metropolitan’s behalf. Imperial will provide water as part of a regional drought contingency plan if California is called upon to help prevent further water cuts.

Imperial spokesman Antonio Ortega said the agency hopes its partners in California and the Colorado River basin recognize opportunities to work together. The river serves 40 million people in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico.

“But also,” he said, “to ensure that these environmental challenges like those we face every day here at Salton Sea will be part of the discussion to ensure that they are addressed and that the concerns of the IID are not being ignored. “

Imperial sued Metropolitan, alleging that the water agency that serves Los Angeles violated state environmental law when it bypassed Imperial in emergency drought talks. The Los Angeles County Superior Court ruled against Imperial, which appealed to the California Court of Appeals earlier this year.

Another complaint filed in 2020 accused Metropolitan of breaking a contract related to the storage of Colorado River water in Lake Mead. Metropolitan has denied the allegations. A trial was scheduled for April 2022.

Those cases have become moot with the agreement signed last week which also describes regular talks between agencies to respond to the drought, court documents show. Metropolitan has said it will support Imperial’s efforts to restore the Salton Sea and secure more funding for the huge brackish lake southeast of Los Angeles.

Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resource manager for Metropolitan, said Monday that Imperial’s ability to store water under a sub-account provides more flexibility in water harvesting. But the capacity is less than what Imperial would have received under the drought contingency plan, and Imperial’s voluntary contributions won’t be as high either, he said.

The deal marks the end of legal struggles and a return to collaboration, he said. Already, water users in the West are discussing what will replace an existing set of guidelines for the Colorado River and the overlapping drought contingency plan that expires in 2026.

Imperial has rights to more than a third of the water allocated to the three lower river basin states and Mexico.

“They have to be at the table,” Hasencamp said. “They must be a party.”

Seven western states finalized the drought plan in 2019 to prevent water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell – upstream of the Arizona-Utah border – from dropping significantly. Still, the United States Bureau of Reclamation has declared the very first water supply shortage for 2022 that will impact Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

The Imperial Irrigation District was essentially removed from the California portion of the drought plan when Metropolitan pledged to contribute most of the state’s voluntary cuts to avoid delays in implementing the plan. . Imperial’s support was based on securing $ 200 million in federal funding to address environmental and health risks at Salton Sea, which it did not receive.

The inland sea formed in 1905 after the Colorado River breached a dike and flooded a basin shrinks, exposing a lake bed with microscopic windblown dust that contributes to poor air quality and asthma .

The state of California has budgeted an additional $ 40 million for the Salton Sea restoration efforts, but it’s not enough, Ortega said.

“We need more support, and things seem to be moving in that direction,” Ortega said. “We hope it will go faster. “

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