San Diego Business Journal

Proposed Bill Could Save Water Project

BY LEE ZION
Staff Writer

A proposed law would save the state of California from losing 260 billion gallons of Colorado River water next year by relieving San Diego of liability over the Salton Sea. But the bill is getting mixed reviews from local water experts.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, has proposed a law relieving local water agencies, including the San Diego County Water Authority, of liability over the Salton Sea. The bill states that local water agencies will be held responsible for only $50 million of the cost of restoring the lake, said Mike Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter.

HR 5123, the Colorado River Quantification Settlement Facilitation Act, would return responsibility over the Salton Sea to the federal and state government where it should have been all along, he said.

Questions over environmental responsibility for the lake have held up a pending "water transfer" agreement between the San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District over use of Colorado River water.

Without that agreement in place by Dec. 31, California will lose access to 800,000 acre feet of Colorado water annually , roughly 260 billion gallons.

That's a forced 15 percent reduction in water overnight. A loss that big could devastate business in California, said Erik Bruvold, vice president of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

"We've still got quite a bit of reasonably heavy manufacturing , Hewlett-Packard, Sony," he said. "The kind of cutbacks they're talking about would have a dramatic effect on their companies and their prospects. You just couldn't make the product."

Biotech in particular would be devastated, Bruvold added.

"Getting this resolved is of critical concern. It also is tied up with the hoped-for transfer from the Imperial Irrigation District. If we don't work those things out the Southland could face some pretty draconian cuts in 2003," he said.

Restoration Responsibility

The Salton Sea Restoration Act, passed in 1998, had already declared the Salton Sea to be the responsibility of the state and federal government. The earlier law also said these agencies would have a program for restoration in place by 2000, Harrison said.

"Well, now it's 2002," he said. "What Mr. Hunter's legislation will do is place the responsibility on the government and not on the Imperial Irrigation District."

Local water agencies are all in support of the bill, Harrison said.

However, not all water agencies agree. Ron Hull, spokesman for the Imperial Irrigation District, favors the legislation.

"We've been in support of Duncan all along. He's been very supportive of our position that Imperial Valley isn't required to sustain all of the weight of the environmental costs on the transfer," he said.

Responsibility for fixing the lake belongs to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, something that agency had agreed to in 1998, Hull said.

"Hunter's legislation takes the burden ... and puts it on the Salton Sea Restoration Act, which is where is should be, in our opinion," he said.

Water Authority Cautious

However, John Liarakos, spokesman for the local water authority, said San Diego is neither opposed nor supportive of Hunter's proposed law. Although they support the idea in general, the bill has several problems that might inhibit the bill from passing, he said.

Over the congressional break, Liarakos hopes to help reword the bill so it passes in time for the state to meet its Dec. 31 water transfer deadline, he said.

"We'd like to work with Congressman Hunter, with the rest of the Congress, and with other interested parties, to basically shape the language so that it has a better opportunity to actually pass," he said.

Meanwhile, the Salton Sea Authority unanimously opposes the bill. The bill would make full restoration of the lake impossible, said Tom Kirk, executive director of the authority.