Lawsuit Filed Against AAC Lining Project

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Imperial Valley farmers, Mike Abatti and Jim Abatti, and environmental group “POWER” have filed a lawsuit against the proposed lining of the All-American Canal to demand that key mitigation measures previously agreed upon be put back into the project design. These mitigation requirements, including a critical safety feature designed to save human lives, were recently eliminated by the project’s proponents in efforts to save money.

Imperial Valley farmers, Mike Abatti and Jim Abatti, and environmental group “POWER” filed a lawsuit today against the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation demanding that IID conduct updated environmental and safety review on changes to the design of the proposed All-American Canal (AAC) lining project since it was approved 12 years ago. The lawsuit was filed in the Imperial County Superior Court, Case No. ECU 03006. Petitioners also intend on seeking an injunction to stop the construction of the canal until questions concerning the canal’s safety and environmental mitigation are resolved. The lawsuit was filed after it was discovered that the project’s construction drawings did not include previously agreed to safety and environmental features.

The canal lining project approved in 1994 proposes to construct a 23 mile long concrete-lined canal adjacent to the existing unlined canal that conveys Colorado River water to the Imperial and Coachella valleys in southeastern California. The purpose of the new canal is to stop the seepage of water that occurs through the bottom of the existing unlined canal. It is estimated that a new lined canal will conserve 67,700 acre-feet of water each year – an amount of water valued in excess of $1 billion and capable of serving more than 100,000 new homes. Most of the water will be made available to the SDCWA, the project’s primary beneficiary, with lesser amounts being made available to the San Luis Rey Indian Water Rights Settlement Parties. The cost of building the project is estimated to be in excess of $200 million and is being funded with $136 million in state monies with remaining amounts to be funded by SDCWA. The project’s construction is being undertaken jointly with the IID who serves as the canal’s construction manager and operator, and the Bureau of Reclamation who retains ownership to the canal.

One of the mitigation measures removed from the project is the installation of escape ridges or steps embedded continuously along the concrete canal’s side walls, a safety measure which was mandated to allow humans and animals entrapped in the canal a means to escape. These features, although expensive, were required as part of the project’s original approval. The project’s environmental reports note that over time, the side slope of a concrete-lined canal becomes slippery at the water line and below because of silt and aquatic vegetation. That, combined with a lack of handholds above the water line, tends to make escape from the canal extremely difficult. For a swimmer, this could lead to exhaustion and drowning.

In place of the escape ridges, the project proponents have proposed installing less expensive steel ladders in the canal every 750 feet. Jim Abatti, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, says “The problem with the ladders is that animals can’t climb ladders and a human can’t see them in the dark”. He also explains “Lining the canal poses a significant hazard to the hundreds if not thousands of migrants who cross the canal at night each year. Those of us who live in the Imperial Valley aren’t interested in sacrificing lives to save San Diego a few dollars. But what really makes the elimination of the escape ridges appalling are the statements by San Diego County Water Authority staff that the conserved water from the lining project is a cheap source of supply.”

Jim’s brother and co-plaintiff, Mike Abatti, says “The elimination of the escape ridges and other mitigation measures from the project is just another example of the contempt with which our neighboring Southern California’s urban water agencies hold the Imperial Valley. This canal lining project, like the other water transfers proposed under the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), are unmitigated disasters. The urban water agencies had a lot of gall three years ago when they asked this valley to fallow our farm land so we could send them water to grow their cities. I can see this attitude hasn’t changed.” Mike, who is running for a seat on the IID Board in the upcoming June primary election, adds “It is unfortunate that in recent years our own Board of Directors has cared more about our urban neighbors than the valley’s residents who elected them.”

Plaintiff Protect Our Water and Environmental Rights (POWER), is an environmental organization whose purpose includes protecting and preserving the environmental resources in the Imperial Valley. In 2003, the organization filed a lawsuit that is still pending against parties to the QSA water transfers for failing to comply with the state’s environmental laws.

The current lawsuit against the AAC lining project alleges that under California law, the IID must update the 1994 Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) to consider the project changes that have occurred and new information since the project’s original approval. These changes and new information include public safety, regional economics, agricultural sustainability, human migration, homeland security, and environmental concerns. The lawsuit will seek an injunction against proceeding with the lining project until these concerns are resolved.

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Craig Morgan

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