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Better Water Deal Is Sought

Times Staff Writer

If there is a moral in the confrontation between the water barons of the Imperial Valley and the outside world, it may be the backwoods truism about swamp drainage.

It says that when you’re up to your hipbone in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your initial goal was merely to drain the swamp.

That’s the dilemma facing the directors of the Imperial Irrigation District, the nation’s largest agricultural irrigation district, holders of water rights that are the envy of farmers and city dwellers throughout the Western states. As the district board prepares to meet tonight in El Centro, it faces a New Year’s Eve deadline to either sign a deal to sell water to San Diego County or see that water taken by the federal government without compensation.

The details are complex, but the bottom line is simple: Sell it or lose it.

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The Imperial directors, in an effort to stave off the threatened reduction in their water supply, may try to modify the deal to their liking before the deadline.

But it is unclear whether that will be acceptable to the six other states that depend on the Colorado River or to the Department of Interior, which controls annual allocations.

The desire of the Imperial directors to change the terms of the sale is not surprising. The deal confronting the board is significantly different than what was envisioned when negotiations began seven years ago.

In fact, things that the farmers were expressly promised would not be part of the deal are now major elements in the proposed 75-year pact with the San Diego County Water Authority.

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San Diego, nearly bereft of native ground water, is desperate to sign a long-term deal with Imperial as a way to liberate itself from near-total dependence on the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Under the deal, Imperial would sell up to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year to San Diego, enough for 1.6 million people.

The farmers had been promised that the water to be sold would come through the installation of conservation devices in their fields, not through letting fields go fallow.

Although economists disagree, it is widely believed in the Imperial Valley that fallowing will undermine the region’s agricultural economy, leading to increased unemployment, business bankruptcies, and loss of tax revenue for local governments and schools.

In the beginning, even the hint of fallowing was a deal-breaker.

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But it now calls for immediate fallowing for at least 15 years.

The Salton Sea was not an issue when negotiations began. Now the sea is possibly the issue, with Imperial concerned about getting soaked for hundreds of millions of dollars in restoration projects.

“The Salton Sea has been the proverbial 800-pound gorilla,” said Imperial board member Andy Horne. “Everybody has chosen to ignore it as long as it was sleeping. Well, the gorilla is standing up and looking for something to eat.”

The deal, when proposed in 1995, was to be strictly voluntary.

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Now the Bush administration, in an announcement made Friday, has warned that unless the deal is struck, it will take away about 7% of the district’s annual allotment from the Colorado River.

The deal was to involve only the sale of water, not the sale of the rights to that water. But Friday’s announcement would reduce not just the allotment for 2003 but the district’s rights for the future.

This is not the first time that the federal government has threatened to reduce Imperial Valley’s right to take water from the river.

In the 1980s, the government tried to restrict use of water from reclamation districts to farmers of 160 acres or less. The Imperial Irrigation District fought to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.

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In the Imperial Valley, water rights are not just business conditions, although they undergird a $1-billion-a-year agricultural industry. They are also considered a birthright.

Many of the farmers involved in the current dispute -- some willing to sell water, some not -- are the descendants of pioneers who settled the desolate valley and were taking water from the Colorado River long before coastal Southern California had formed the Metropolitan Water District to tap into the river.

Some of those pioneers were refugees from the Owens Valley who fled when the valley’s water was acquired through fair means and foul by Los Angeles. Fear of losing their water rights runs deep in the Imperial Valley.

Farmer and poet Rick Mealey has been warning in his verse about outsiders deciding the water “wasn’t ours; And they needed it all somewhere else; for amusement parks and power,” and so the water was shipped away “and this valley died too soon.”

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Despite such fears, Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, says he remains confident that a deal can be reached before the deadline. Meetings and calls continued over the weekend.

“All the king’s men and women, and all the king’s horses, are trying to put this thing back together again,” he said.

On Dec. 9, the Imperial board rejected the proposed deal by a vote of 3 to 2.

One way the deal might be stitched back together would be to craft a shorter contract and provide some pledges about protecting the Imperial district from problems involving the Salton Sea. Whether such changes would withstand scrutiny in Washington and six Western statehouses is unknown.

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Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley, who announced the threatened cuts, said California and the Imperial district have to accept that this is a new day for Western water issues.

The other six states, Raley said, will no longer permit California and Imperial to use lavish amounts of water. Also, the 1930s-era formula that gives Imperial and two smaller agricultural districts 75% of California’s share of the river is an anachronism, Raley said.

Refusal to accept those facts, Raley warned, will force the government to reduce water shipments to the Imperial district and to the MWD, which serves 17 million people in six counties.

“This is a California choice,” he said. “It’s time to deal with reality.”

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But Raley’s reality is not the reality of many farmers. The talk here this weekend has been of ways to fight what some see as an illegal “water grab,” possibly with a lawsuit defending the valley’s water rights.

“If Bennett Raley thinks he’s tough and can threaten the Imperial Valley, let him try,” said John Pierre Menvielle, a third-generation Imperial farmer. “We’ll take him on. We may be backed up against the wall, but we’re not going to give in.”

The deadline for signing the San Diego deal was set two years ago during a convention in Las Vegas of officials from the seven states that depend on, and fight over, the Colorado River.

In exchange for finalizing the Imperial-San Diego deal, coastal Southern California was to be allowed to continue receiving so-called surplus water from the Colorado River for 15 years in addition to the state’s assured allocation. Failure to meet the deadline would mean an immediate suspension of surplus water shipments for California.

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The Las Vegas convention that year was a festive one, with lots of good cheer about California finally finding a way to live within a water budget by reallocating water from desert farms to thirsty coastal cities.

One highlight of the gathering was a large painting showing then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt standing amid seven snarling and snapping creatures, each with the name of a Colorado River state on its back.

The creatures?

Alligators, of course.

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