San Diego Business Journal

Imperial Offers New Conditions For Water Deal

BY LEE ZION
Staff Writer

A new proposal to complete an intricate water deal could save California from losing access to as much as 230 billion gallons of water annually.

However, that deal might be jeopardized by a recently announced lawsuit by the Sierra Club and a Riverside County Indian tribe.

The Imperial Irrigation District issued a proposal Sept. 11 hammering out the details of a water transfer to the San Diego County Water Authority. The 13-page letter, obtained by the San Diego Business Journal, is a response to the local water agency's Aug. 23 offer to the Imperial water district.

If the water transfer deal isn't signed by Dec. 31, California will lose access to as much as 700,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, or 230 billion gallons annually (see sidebar).

The letter, signed by Imperial negotiator John Penn Carter, lays out some new terms for San Diego water officials. It also has some stern words for two other parties to the deal, the Metropolitan Water District and the Coachella Valley Water District.

"MWD and CVWD have failed to appropriately plan for the future and now are facing significant cutbacks on their water supplies," Carter stated. "It is therefore inappropriate to suggest that IID and the Imperial Valley community should engage in great sacrifices simply to bail out our wealthy neighbors to the north and the west."

Letter Chastises State

Carter's letter also mildly rebukes the state for attempting to complete the water transfer deal while also trying to save the Salton Sea. Although this can be done, agriculture-dependent Imperial County should not be expected to bear the costs by "fallowing" land, or taking it out of production, he said.

"The Imperial Valley community will not shoulder the burden of that decision, especially through a significant fallowing program that will be harmful to our community," Carter said. "If it is the desire of the state and the other three water agencies to accomplish both goals, then those parties should be willing to facilitate such action."

The Imperial proposal calls on the County Water Authority to delay the start of the water transfer , as much as 200,000 acre-feet of water , for five years. Imperial also expects San Diego to pay it $130 million up front to cover the economic effects of fallowing, among other costs.

The IID, meanwhile, agrees to accept temporary fallowing, lasting no more than 10 years. The limited scope of the fallowing program would be enough to save a total of 500,000 acre-feet of water in that time, Carter said.

The Imperial district also agrees to supply some of the water needed to save the Salton Sea, while the Imperial Valley community will be indemnified against the rest of the cost.

Dennis Cushman, a spokesman for the County Water Authority, said the water agency is preparing a response to Imperial's proposal, which it plans to present when all four agencies sit down at the table again Sept. 23.

Cushman hoped the County Water Authority's offer will help move discussions forward.

"We certainly hope Imperial views it as such, and we have the makings of a deal that everyone can live with," he said.

Salton Sea Lawsuit

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed Sept. 3 by the Sierra Club and the Cabazon band of Mission Indians seeks to bar the federal Bureau of Reclamation from authorizing any water transfers that may damage the Salton Sea.

Fred Cagle, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, denied that the lawsuit would delay the water transfer beyond the Dec. 31 deadline. Instead, it's an administrative suit to force the bureau to complete a series of studies on the Salton Sea.

A 1998 law required the federal government to develop a plan to restore it by 2000. Several studies have not been done, he said.

Now that the transfer deal is on the table, the big question is how the Salton Sea will be affected. Mitigation, or alleviating the effects of the water transfer on it, can't be discussed until studies are completed and released, Cagle said.

Cushman downplayed the lawsuit.

"We don't believe the lawsuit has merit, nor do we believe that it is the most immediate hurdle that we need to clear to get the transfer done," he said.

California's Water Problems Date Back Decades

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

The deal, under which the Imperial Irrigation District would transfer 200,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Imperial Valley to San Diego, codifies how much water each agency can use. The deal is a prerequisite for obtaining surplus water from the Colorado River.

In January 2001, the federal government mandated California must reduce its use of Colorado River water down from its current draw of 5.1 acre-feet to 4.4 million acre-feet , its historical allotment dating back to 1928. The agreement worked out between the federal government, California and the six other states using the Colorado River gives California a 15-year cushion to gradually reduce its use.

In order to get that cushion, the state must meet certain milestones , among them the water transfer deal. Without the deal in place 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, spokesman for the San Diego County Water Authority.