Murky Water Issue Needs Clearing

Old-style fears and jealousies are threatening to unravel a critical water agreement that would benefit farmers in the Imperial Valley and urban dwellers throughout Southern California. Both the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California must realize that they have too much to lose if their pact of nearly one year ago falls apart.

The 500,000-acre Imperial district is under order from the state to conserve water. Metropolitan has agreed to pay $223 million to Imperial to construct the needed conservation facilities. In return, Metropolitan would receive 100,000 acre-feet of the conserved water, which is part of California's apportionment of Colorado River supplies.

A group of dissident farmers has raised new questions about the agreement, including fears of liability for environmental damage that the program might cause and the potential loss of control over their supplies to the giant urban water agency. The farmers are pressuring the Imperial board of directors to reopen negotiations with Metropolitan.

Another complication is that the Coachella Valley Water District, which draws on the same Colorado sources, wants assurance that its rights will not be impaired. The Metropolitan-Imperial deal expires Dec. 31 if the two agencies fail to agree on implementation of the exchange.

The Imperial board will hold a special hearing on Friday to hear from the dissident farmers and consider a proposal to safeguard Coachella's rights. The Coachella board will meet next Tuesday and the Met board on Nov. 14. The agencies should make every effort to settle their differences by the end of the year or the issue could become embroiled in legal action that might ultimately jeopardize everyone's claim on California's Colorado River supplies. This water fight should be settled at the negotiating table, not at the bar.

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