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Progress Cited on Water Deal as Deadline Nears

Times Staff Writer

The attorney for the Imperial Irrigation District said Monday night that incremental progress is being made in breaking the deadlock over a proposed water deal between the district and coastal Southern California.

But Imperial board members responded with anger at the federal government and deep distrust of other California water agencies involved in the proposed deal.

That deal is the result of two political imperatives: San Diego’s push to secure a long-term contract for Colorado River water, and the demand by six other river-dependent states that California curb its enormous consumption.

Imperial faces a deadline of midnight tonight to either approve the sale of water to the San Diego County Water Authority or see its allocation of irrigation water from the Colorado River slashed by 7%.

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Imperial lawyer John Carter said that the Department of Interior has agreed to a key concession and that coastal water agencies have agreed to back Imperial in its bid for $200 million from a state bond issue to pay the cost of repairing the Salton Sea. The sea exists solely on agricultural runoff and could be harmed if Imperial reduces water usage.

The Imperial board, which rejected an earlier proposal 3 to 2 on Dec. 9, is set to reconvene this afternoon to consider the issue after first meeting in closed session with its lawyers.

Even board members who initially supported the sale expressed anger at an announcement by Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley that Imperial’s water will be cut if it does not meet the deadline.

“Do I think we have to fight” the Department of Interior? asked board member Lloyd Allen. “Yes, we’ve got to fight. We can’t let them do this.”

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Lawyers and consultants representing Imperial, San Diego, Metropolitan and the Coachella Valley water districts are engaged in marathon negotiating sessions, including meetings and conference calls, in an effort to revive the deal.

One reason the Imperial district has balked at the proposed sale is fear that it will be billed for the projects aimed at fixing the Salton Sea.

Allen said the three other agencies agreed that if their request for $200 million from Proposition 50, the state water bond passed in November, is not approved by October, the water sale will be scuttled.

But Raley said the idea of putting such conditions on the Imperial-San Diego water transfer is inconsistent with the agreement approved two years ago by the Department of Interior and six other Western states. That agreement called for the sale to be finalized by today.

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Key legislators and officials of Gov. Gray Davis’ administration have discussed using Proposition 50 to help save the water deal.

However, any decision on such an allocation would have to be made by the Legislature, which could take months.

Raley has said the federal government and the other Colorado River states deserve “finality” in their efforts to curb California’s historic overuse of the Colorado River by transferring water from farms to cities.

On another point, Raley said the Department of Interior will agree not to make further attempts to reduce Imperial’s water allocation by claiming that farmers are wasteful.

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But Imperial directors said they want to see all promises made by the federal government and the other California agencies put in a legally binding form.

“Personally I don’t trust these people to do what they say,” board member Andy Horne said.

“I’m not going to be pushed around and I’m not going to be bullied just because it’s Dec. 31,” board President Stella Mendoza said.


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