Throughout the high-stakes poker game that coastal cities and a giant irrigation district have been playing for the past seven years in the California desert � with a rich pot of Colorado River water the prize � the Salton Sea has been a peripheral presence, like a high-roller's mistress standing just outside the glare of the lights.

But events earlier this year suggest that the ecologically ailing drainage sump at the heart of the Imperial Valley has really been manipulating the game all along. And as California grows more desperate to resolve the lingering dispute that has cut deeply into one of its key sources of water, the Salton Sea's future seems likely to become a matter of pressing interest in every corner of the state. It will, in fact, provide a test of whether the state's voters and political leaders regard California's vast water-supply infrastructure as a single interconnected system, or whether they reserve their interest only for the plumbing in their own neighborhoods.

The primary poker players in this game are the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) and the Metropolitan Water District (MWD). They have been haggling for years over a proposal to shift some Colorado River water from IID to SDCWA, which now gets most of its water from MWD (see CP&DR Environment Watch, December 2002).

That transfer would allow MWD to send less water to San Diego, making it possible for the Met to reduce its withdrawals from the Colorado River. That reduction is, in turn, key to California's ability to keep its use of Colorado River water at 4.4 million acre-feet annually, the quantity to which it is legally entitled. California has been exceeding that amount by as much as 800,000 acre-feet a year, and failure to reach final agreement on the IID-SDCWA transfer caused Interior Secretary Gale Norton's January 1 order to reduce the state's Colorado River allocation by 620,000 acre-feet. At least publicly, the failure of the deal during the waning days of 2002 was blamed initially on the negotiators' inability to agree about mechanisms preventing the water transfer from economically harming the Imperial Valley. In order to free up the water for sale to San Diego, Imperial farmers planned to take some of their land out of production.

Over the long term, conservation measures would take the place of fallowing, allowing the land to again be planted in crops. But any mention of fallowing alarmed many in the county's agriculture-dependent towns, who feared it would mean lost jobs and reduced sales of farm-related products in an area with California's highest unemployment rate. While a hit on the local farm economy may still be a leading concern, developments during the first few months of 2003 indicate that Imperial County farmers had a much bigger fear: The water transfer's effect on the Salton Sea, which is both the valley's boon and its curse.

Without the sea to accept irrigation runoff from Imperial Valley farms, there would be no Imperial Valley agriculture. The valley's fields require flooding with irrigation water to flush salts from the soil that would otherwise poison crops. There is no place for that irrigation runoff to drain except the Salton Sea. That runoff is the primary source of inflow to the sea, which has no outlet. If too much flows in, the sea expands, flooding private property along its shoreline; if too little flows in, the sea shrinks through evaporation, becoming too saline to support life and exposing salt flats to the wind, which whips them into unhealthy dust clouds.

Reducing irrigation so the water can be sold to San Diego means the sea � its salinity already increasing because salt flushed into it cannot leave � could shrink and grow saltier even faster, quickly threatening its viability as a critical food source, nursery and wintering habitat for millions of migratory birds. The obvious solution is to stabilize and restore the sea, but all of the methods that have so far been studied are expensive, with costs estimated at between $1 billion and $35 billion. Imperial farmers, whose activities created the sea and the ecological mess it has become, have grown increasingly nervous as details of those solutions have been made public. They grew even more nervous when the federal government indicated it did not consider restoring the sea a high priority and would be unlikely to pick up the tab. Two months before the January 1 deadline for the transfer deal, negotiators announced that they'd reached an agreement. But at the last minute, the IID board rejected the pact.

The agreement's failure to immunize Imperial farmers from financial and legal responsibility for saving the Salton Sea was a major factor. At that point, the Department of Interior made good on its threat to cut California's allocation of Colorado River water. IID's board sued the federal agency � and was in turn sued by some of the district's own farmers � and won an injunction preventing the reduction from taking effect. Frantic negotiations ensued, spearheaded by the state, whose representatives in March cautiously announced yet another deal to settle the lawsuits and satisfy the federal government. This deal makes it clear that IID's goal had been to secure assurances it would not be left on the hook for an expensive ecological rescue effort. With backing from the governor, lawmakers have proposed allocating $200 million in Proposition 50 funds for Salton Sea restoration. IID also asked for $150 million in state loan guarantees to help it finance conservation measures. In an op-ed published in April in the Sacramento Bee, California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols defended the use of Proposition 50 funds for the project. Responding to a Bee editorial that criticized the plan for using state bond proceeds to grease a deal that will benefit Southern California farms and cities, Nichols emphasized the interconnectedness of the state's plumbing system.

"Why is a subsidy for a water transfer that benefits the entire state � by maintaining our ability to purchase surplus supplies of water from the Colorado River � more distasteful than a subsidy for a fish screen that allows more pumping of water from the Delta?" Nichols wrote. It remains to be seen whether that logic will be embraced by lawmakers from regions that have more experience squabbling with each other over California's water supply than viewing it as a common resource.

Contacts: Mary Nichols, California Resources Agency, (916) 653-5656. Imperial Irrigation District, (760) 482-9600. San Diego County Water Authority, (858) 522-6600.