San Diego Business Journal

Agencies Take A New Stab At Water Deal

BY LEE ZION
Staff Writer

Southern California officials continue to squabble over a deal to restore an important source of water to the state.

Officials from the San Diego County Water Authority met Jan. 30 with representatives of three other water agencies and the office of Gov. Gray Davis. The parties hope to resolve an ongoing debate that so far this year has cost the state of California 200 billion gallons of water.

The results of the talks were not available as of press time. Byron Tucker, deputy press secretary for Davis, declined to speculate on a timeline when matters will be settled.

"Gov. Davis has indicated his commitment to bringing all parties together to try to hammer out a solution that is amicable to all the parties involved," he said. "But obviously, there are some difficult challenges in putting together a deal."

At issue is a water transfer deal and an accompanying water agreement, both of which were supposed to have been signed by a federal deadline of Dec. 31. Since the state missed its deadline, Interior Secretary Gale Norton cut off the state from 620,000 acre-feet of surplus water from the Colorado River, or 200 billion gallons.

The water transfer, in turn, is the centerpiece of a larger deal called the Quantification Settlement Agreement. The agreement is the state's plan to reduce its dependency on Colorado River water; without such a plan, the federal government can severely reduce California's take, Cushman said.

"That's the reason why we're in renewed negotiations," he said. "Time will tell how that will play out."

However, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Coachella Valley Water District balked on the agreement. Adan Ortega, a spokesman for MWD, said the last-minute changes inserted by the Imperial district just before Dec. 31 substantially changed the document all four water agencies agreed to back in October.

Ortega added that all four agencies must agree to the plan in order for the state to get its water back. That means drafting a plan acceptable to the federal government and the other six states that use water from the Colorado, he said.

But Imperial spokeswoman Sue Giller said the changes to the water transfer deal were necessary, since the small water agency was unfairly being saddled with exorbitant costs. As talks on the water transfer deal progressed, Imperial was called on to make sure that its transfer of water would not harm the Salton Sea, an environmentally sensitive area.

"During 2002, everything turned around when state environmental agencies said, 'No way are you going to move ahead with this transfer without protecting the sea , keeping the sea whole, essentially, for 15 years,'" she said.

In order for the deal to go through, Imperial Valley farmers would be required to "fallow" their land, or take it out of production. This was not what Imperial had agreed to in its earlier talks with San Diego dating back to 1998, Giller said.

Also, Imperial was being held liable for protecting the Salton Sea , a responsibility of the federal government. The Salton Sea Restoration Act, passed in 1998, tasked the federal government with creating a plan for the water body by 2000, she said.

In the meantime, Imperial continues to meet with officials from other water agencies and the state, Giller said.

"The governor's office is overseeing negotiations right now," she said. "Our negotiators are working with the governor."