San Diego Business Journal

Environmentalists Fight Water Transfer Plan

Staff Writer

The battle for a secure water supply for the county may come down to business vs. the environment.

San Diego is looking to complete a complex water transfer deal to obtain up to 200,000 acre feet of water a year from the Imperial Irrigation District. The deal, discussed at an April 4 public hearing, pitted business interests against environmental groups.

The water deal will help keep crucial manufacturing jobs here, said Eric Bruvold, vice president of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

Large companies like Hewlett-Packard and Sony need a steady and ample water supply. Biotech firms are also large water users, he said.

But due to federal requirements, the state must gradually reduce the amount of water it takes from the Colorado River by 700,000 acre-feet, Bruvold said.

An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to submerge one acre of land under a foot of water , about 325,000 gallons.

The deal with the Imperial Valley would continue to provide water to San Diego in the face of reduced supply from the river. As farmers in the valley conserve, that water is diverted to the urban coastal region, Bruvold said.

The deals between the Imperial Irrigation District, the San Diego County Water Authority and other agencies are "of critical concern," he said.

But Phil Pryde, spokesman for the San Diego Audubon Society, criticized the deal. Pryde was one of several environmentalists who spoke at the April 4 meeting, along with the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The problem is "agricultural runoff," or unused water running off from farms. The water feeds the Salton Sea, which has become a habitat area for environmentally protected birds, Pryde said.

If that water is diverted out of Imperial County, the lake will eventually shrink. Right now, the Salton Sea gains a total of 1.3 million acre feet of water a year from agricultural runoff and water flowing north from Mexico in the New River, he said.

However, the Salton Sea also loses 1.3 million acre feet of water a year due to evaporation. Without a source of water to replenish the sea, the lake will die , and with it, so will the fish and birds in the area, Pryde said.

Reducing the amount of water flowing into the Salton Sea would greatly speed up the process currently destroying the lake. Already, the Salton Sea is gradually becoming saltier as agricultural runoff carries salts and sediments with it, which are left behind when the water evaporates, he said.

Salinity Increasing

As the salinity increases, the fish that live in the sea become weaker, leaving them at greater risk for disease. This can lead to massive die-offs among the fish and the birds that feed on them, Pryde said.

At the same time, the lost water would cause the lake level to fall, exposing miles of shoreline. The newly exposed land would dry up and become dust, which would blow through the air and worsen the air pollution already in the area, he said.

The transferred water, meanwhile, will be used to continue San Diego's pattern of unchecked development, which Pryde referred to as urban sprawl.

Pryde said he didn't object to water transfers in general. But this transfer plan has some problems, and the authors of the plan did not look into other alternatives, he said.

These include looking into other sources of water for San Diego, such as increased conservation, desalinizing water from the Pacific Ocean and using more reclaimed water locally, Pryde said.

Jan Cortez, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of San Diego and Imperial Counties, also criticized the report. The project would increase air pollution in Imperial County , an element the report tried to ignore, she said.

Diverting the water away from the Salton Sea would cause the area to dry up, raising dust clouds similar to the clouds over the former Owens Lake. This could cause serious lung damage to Imperial Valley residents, she said.

Accidental Lake

Also, as the sea dries up, it could expose chemicals on the lake bed, such as pesticides and cancer-causing pollutants like cadmium and arsenic. These could become airborne and further damage people's health, Cortez said.

James Bond, speaking as a board member for the San Diego County Water Authority and as the deputy mayor of Encinitas, downplayed the effects the water transfer would have on the Salton Sea. The lake was formed by accident at the beginning of the 20th century, and sustained since then only by agricultural runoff, he said.

Bond added that even without the water transfers, the Salton Sea will still die. The lake will get saltier over time, and will reach the point where it cannot sustain life in about 10 to 20 years.

The water transfers will speed the process by only five years or so, he said.

Bond also disagreed with the criticism that the water transfer will fuel urban sprawl. The deal will provide 200,000 acre feet to San Diego at a time when the state will get 700,000 less acre feet total, he said.

Also, San Diegans are already conserving. The county imports about the same amount of water it did in 1989, even as the region grew by almost half a million people, he said.