State sweetens water deal to tempt sour Imperial

(Note: Definition of an acre-foot of water: 325,851 gallons of water. The volume (as of irrigation water) that would cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot (43,560 cubic feet). - Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management)

December 31, 2002

By Michael Gardner

Staff writer, Copley News Service

San Diego Union Tribune

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SACRAMENTO The Davis administration has pledged $350 million and offered environmental concessions to the Imperial Valley in a last-ditch bid to save a vital pact that must be signed by the end of the year or Southern California will lose a substantial share of its Colorado River water.

Imperial Irrigation District directors are to meet Tuesday to weigh the comprehensive counterproposal that could clear the way for a historic sale of water to the San Diego County Water Authority.

U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton has given California until midnight to seal the deal or she will move swiftly to squeeze the state's river allocation by 620,000 acre-feet a year, or enough for about 1.2 million households.

Depending on the outcome, California will secure a 15-year reprieve to develop sound alternatives to its addiction to the Colorado.

Or, a new water war could ignite, raising doubts about the region's ability to keep ample supplies flowing for growth while lawyers scurry to court to fight over the river.

"The fur will begin to fly in many directions after the first of the year," said Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.

Norton had dispatched her top lieutenant on water issues to join the negotiations Monday.

"Skeptical, but we'll never give up hope," said Bennett Raley in assessing his mood late in the day.

But Imperial's attorney, John Carter, offered hope in briefly outlining some progress to the board.

The state has offered $150 million in loan guarantees to protect farmers who invest in conservation systems from losses if the water transfer contract is terminated later.

Another $200 million is pledged to help Imperial mitigate any harm the transfer inflicts on the Salton Sea, a wildlife haven replenished by agricultural runoff.

Imperial can walk away from the water transfer if the state does not provide the funding by Oct. 31, according to Carter's presentation.

In another significant concession, the 75-year water transfer contract between the San Diego water authority and Imperial will be restructured so that it can be terminated by either party in 45 years.

Otherwise, the key components of the water sale remain intact. The water authority eventually will buy up to 200,000 acre-feet a year at $258 per acre-foot. It would be the largest-ever ongoing farm-to-city water sale.

Still, some Imperial directors were not ready to embrace the deal without more study, even though Imperial director Bruce Kuhn, a contractor who has been opposed to the pact, has been part of the negotiating team.

Imperial's plan to sell up to 200,000 acre-feet to the San Diego County Water Authority is a linchpin of any broader accord because it would help replace lost Colorado River water.

Failure has its consequences. Norton already has detailed plans to swiftly cut California's allocation. The Metropolitan Water, which wholesales water throughout Southern California, stands to lose 415,000 acre-feet. Imperial could be cut 205,000 acre-feet.

Norton concedes she could reverse her directive at any time despite repeated dire warnings to break deadlocked talks by Jan. 1 or else. Restored rations could flow to Southern California if an agreement is reached later in the year.

Southern California would lose an estimated 100,000 acre-feet if talks drag through March, and up to 200,000 acre-feet if a pact isn't delivered by July 1, according to Adan Ortega, a vice president of the giant wholesaler Metropolitan Water District.

Western states have pressured Norton to act, saying California has used more than its share of the river for years. To avoid immediate economic harm, Western states did agree to give California 15 years to reduce its draw of the river, but only if an ironclad plan is adopted by the end of this year.

Ortega said Southern California can brush aside any short-term disruptions in deliveries from the Colorado. Reservoirs are full. The Northern Sierra range is covered with a thick blanket of snow. And Sacramento Valley farmers are eager to sell water, he said.

Much of Metropolitan's river entitlement was destined for long-term storage to buffer against the next drought, Ortega said.

"Nature is going to be the determining factor in how desperate we get," he said.

Metropolitan, which delivers supplies to some 17 million Southern Californians, also will accelerate spending on recycling, desalination and other conservation programs if river supplies continue to be squeezed.

Cushman agreed the peril is not immediate, but noted agencies must plan well beyond the next few years.

He also is concerned that the fallout could lead to extensive court battles over who has the legal right to how much water out of the Colorado. Imperial already has threatened to go to court if Norton reduces water deliveries to its farmers.

Pressure has ratcheted on Imperial Irrigation District directors with each passing hour, like the lone juror holdout in a death-penalty case. The Imperial board, on a 3-2 vote Dec. 9, became the only party to reject the comprehensive agreement. Imperial controls about three-fourths of California's allocation of the river.