San Diego Business Journal

San Diego, Imperial Achieve Water Deal
Pact Paves Way for State to Meet Deadline

Staff Writer

With the clock ticking, San Diego and Imperial Valley settled a longstanding dispute that could have cost the state of California 700,000 acre-feet of water annually.

That's about the same amount of water that all of San Diego uses in a year.

Four California water agencies reached an agreement Oct. 16 on a water transfer that provides water from Imperial Valley to San Diego County. The agreement, which must still be ratified by each agency's board of directors, is part of a larger deal regarding how to distribute water from the Colorado River.

The larger deal, the Quantification Settlement Agreement, must be ratified by Dec. 31. If the state misses the deadline, it stands to lose as much as 700,000 acre-feet of water, or 230 billion gallons.

Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager for the San Diego County Water Authority, said the Oct. 16 deal is the "linchpin" in the agreement.

"It provides the means for the agreement, which includes other agreements and other transfers, to be completed by the end of the year."

Cushman described what the Oct. 16 deal means for San Diego.

"It means a vital new water supply for San Diego County. It means greater reliability in our water supplies because it diversifies our imported water supplies from one supplier to two," he said.

Also, the new supply of water for San Diego County has a higher "priority" than its current supply, meaning that there's less of a chance the area will face cutbacks during drought years, Cushman said.

Regional Impact

Eric Bruvold, vice president of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., supported the Oct. 16 deal. Without it, the larger agreement would fall through and the state would miss its Dec. 31 deadline with the federal government.

This would mean a tremendous cutback in water supplies, and a devastating loss for the region, he said.

"We've still got quite a bit of reasonably heavy manufacturing , Hewlett-Packard, Sony (This) would have a dramatic effect on their companies and their prospects," Bruvold said. "Also, the people who are doing research work and drug development most of what we consider our main-line biotechnology companies would be significantly affected."

The Oct. 16 deal was worked out between San Diego, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Under the agreement, water transfers from Imperial Valley to San Diego County could begin next year, Cushman said.

The deal calls for Imperial Valley farmers to conserve water by implementing new practices on their farms and also by temporarily "fallowing" their land, or taking it out of production. The water saved would flow to San Diego County, and also the Salton Sea, an environmentally sensitive lake in Imperial County, he said.

Under the deal, IID will deliver a total of 1 million acre-feet of water to San Diego in the first 15 years , 10,000 acre-feet in the first year, growing to 130,000 by year 15. San Diego would initially pay $258 per acre-foot for this water , although the amount could change after five years, Cushman said.

In this deal, San Diego gets less water than the amount called for in an earlier 1998 agreement , between 1.6 million and 2.1 million acre-feet, he said.

Temporary Fallowing

Also, Imperial Valley farmers will be reimbursed for the economic impact of taking land out of production. Ten million dollars will come from the IID, while at least $10 million will come from San Diego, Cushman said.

After the 15th year, the IID will supply more water to San Diego, gradually increasing to 200,000 acre-feet annually by the 19th year of the agreement , 2021. That amount would remain fixed for the duration of the agreement , 45 years with a possible 30-year extension, he said.

Cushman added that the deal will also help save the Salton Sea. Without fallowing of farmland, much less water would flow into the lake, imperiling an environmentally sensitive area.

Now the deal calls for temporary fallowing, ending after 15 years. This helps buy time for the Salton Sea, he said.

"The Salton Sea will be protected from increasing salinity levels, because of the transfer, in the first 15 years. And it means 15 years of breathing room for the state and federal governments to decide upon a reclamation plan and to fund it, and implement a plan for the Salton Sea."

Jesse Silva, general manager of the IID, also supported the deal.

"We have worked for over six years to reach this point, and even though we have not gained all we had hoped from the original agreement, we are still optimistic that there are pluses for all parties, including the IID," he said.

State's Water Supply Hangs in the Balance

If the Quantitative Settlement Agreement isn't signed by Dec. 31, the state could lose up to 230 billion gallons of water next year.

In January 2001, the federal government mandated that California must reduce its annual draw from the Colorado River. Instead of its current annual use of 5.1 million acre feet annually, it must reduce its draw to 4.4 million acre-feet a year , its historical allotment dating back to 1928.

However, California gets a 15-year cushion to gradually reduce its use, under an agreement worked out between the federal government, California and the six other states using the Colorado River. In order to get that cushion, the state must meet certain milestones.

One of these milestones is the Quantitative Settlement Agreement. If the agreement isn't signed by Dec. 31, the state would be forced down to 4.4 million acre-feet instantly. In effect, it would lose the 700,000 acre-feet overnight.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons; 700,000 acre-feet equals 230 billion gallons of water.

If the state of California were to lose 700,000 acre-feet of water a year, San Diego's share in that loss would be 200,000 acre-feet. That's about one third of its annual supply, said Dennis Cushman, a spokesman for the San Diego County Water Authority.

, Lee Zion