Southland Share of Water to Be Cut as Deal Collapses

Times Staff Writer

Southern California cities and suburbs will lose a major portion of the water supply they have relied on for the last two decades as an immediate consequence of a breakdown in New Year's Eve negotiations over a deal to shift water from farms to urban areas.

A top Bush administration official said Tuesday night that water distribution from the Colorado River will be reduced after four water agencies failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to agree on a plan for Imperial Valley farmers to sell water to San Diego County.

Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley said the administration has no choice but to reduce water to the mammoth Imperial Irrigation District by 7% and to suspend shipments of so-called surplus water from the Colorado River to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves Los Angeles and five surrounding counties.

The cutback will deprive the MWD of about 50% of its Colorado River allocation, or about 25% of its total supply from all sources. MWD provides water to local agencies, many of which also have their own local supplies.

"We regret doing this, but we've been consistent for 15 months about enforcing the deadline," Raley said. "We wish there wasn't this kind of fighting and we were on the same path."

Though urban and suburban residents will not feel the impact of the reduction immediately, the end of surplus shipments greatly complicates the state's water future and may require greater public investment in water conservation projects and even lifestyle changes. "We have reached the era of limits," said Raley, the administration's point man on Western water issues.

Metropolitan Water District officials said they may begin shutting down some pumps that draw water from the Colorado River and begin switching to reservoirs and aquifers as early as next week.

The New Year's deadline was set two years ago as a kind of cease-fire agreement between California and the other six states that also draw water from the Colorado. The other states, beset by drought, have demanded that the federal government end the practice of allowing California to take more than its legal allotment from the river.

The proposed transfer of water from the Imperial Valley, which would require some valley farmland to be taken out of cultivation, is seen as a major step in reducing California's excessive dependence on the Colorado.

Early Tuesday evening, any hope of an eleventh-hour settlement was lost when neighboring water agencies turned down a plea from Imperial Valley for continued negotiations over the proposed water transfer to San Diego County. The parties had until midnight Tuesday to reach a deal, but officials of MWD and the Coachella Valley Water District said the Imperial Irrigation District had added too many complex, costly conditions at the last minute.

For Imperial Valley farmers, it is the first time the federal government has challenged their historic right to the lion's share of California's entitlement to the Colorado River.

And for MWD, which serves 17 million people in six counties, it means the loss of 600,000 to 800,000 acre-feet of surplus water a year -- enough for 6 million people. An acre-foot is enough water to meet the annual needs of two families.

The collapse of the Imperial-San Diego deal leaves California with the "cold turkey" prospect of living within its legal entitlement of 4.4 million acre-feet without any additional surplus water.

The federal government and the six other Western states had been willing to give California another 15 years of surplus water, but only if the water transfer was approved by midnight.

Metropolitan officials said there is enough water in reservoirs and aquifers to offset the loss of surplus water for at least two more years.

For the longer term, the district has accelerated plans for other water deals, desalination plants, conservation projects and water reclamation projects. Actress Rene Russo is leading a drive to persuade property owners to plant only native plants that require little watering.

Metropolitan, Imperial, the Coachella Valley Water District and the San Diego County Water Authority were under a deadline to either approve a historic transfer of water from farms to cities or suffer the cuts.

Despite -- or possibly because of -- a flurry of last-minute negotiations, the water agencies were unable to agree on a plan to reduce California's overreliance on the Colorado River.

While the Imperial board voted 3 to 2 to accept a water sales plan, Metropolitan executives said the financial provisions added by Imperial were unacceptable.

"The last time an eleventh-hour proposal was hastily approved, circumstances led to an energy crisis," said Ronald Gastelum, MWD president and chief executive officer. "This will not be the case with water."

Coachella officials said the Imperial-approved contract was too complex for them to adequately study before the deadline.

"We worked hard, but we didn't get there," said Steve Robbins, interim general manager in Coachella. "Now we'll have to accept the consequences."

There still remains a chance that the four agencies will settle their differences in the coming weeks and months and persuade Raley and his boss, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, to resume the surplus shipments to Metropolitan and restore Imperial's full water allocation.

But Raley on Tuesday night said the agencies should not count on that happening.

"With the things that Imperial wants, I don't see a solution in the short term," Raley said. "It's nearly impossible to see how we can satisfy Imperial."

Among other things, Imperial wants protection from runaway costs to restore the Salton Sea -- a refuge for millions of fish and birds -- the right to quit the deal at certain "off-ramps" and a loan guarantee to pay for conservation devices.

One of the scenarios floated Tuesday afternoon was a 90-day deadline extension. But that idea was quickly dismissed by Raley in the hours before the Imperial board's vote.

"The 31st is the deadline," Raley told reporters. "We are not interested in extending it and neither are the other six states."

Also, Raley said, some of the conditions inserted by Imperial in the proposed deal involving Salton Sea restoration costs and the "off-ramps" are at odds with what the Department of Interior and six other states find acceptable.

The four Southern California water agencies -- with mediation by then-Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) -- had tentatively reached an agreement Oct. 15.

But the Imperial board on Dec. 9 rejected the agreement and began new negotiations.

"Standing our ground on Dec. 9, we sent a message to the world," said Imperial board member Bruce Kuhn.

On Dec. 9, Kuhn was the swing vote against the proposed deal. Tuesday night, he was the swing vote in favor.

"By approving the deal, we can't be accused of not approving it," Kuhn said. "If they [Coachella and Metropolitan] want to kill it, so be it. At least it won't be us who did it."

But board member Andy Horne, who voted against the proposal, said the vote was in effect meaningless because of lack of support from Metropolitan and Coachella. "This [sale] is not going anywhere, at least for the time being," Horne said.

Under the proposal, Imperial would sell up to 200,000 acre-feet a year to the San Diego County Water Authority. The deal would last 45 years, down from 75 in the original plan, which many farmers thought was too long.

The Imperial Irrigation District became the focus of the negotiations because, along with two smaller agricultural districts, it controls 75% of California's share of the Colorado River. Based on a legal concept called "first in time, first in right," the Imperial Valley pioneers staked their claim to the river nearly a century ago, long before coastal Southern California.

With 140,000 people and 500,000 acres of farmland, the Imperial district has been entitled to 3.1 million acre-feet a year. Because of the failure to reach agreement to sell water to San Diego, Raley has announced that the Imperial allocation will be reduced by 200,000 acre-feet.

Imperial board members Tuesday said they may sue the Department of Interior to reverse Raley's decision and protect the valley's water rights.

The MWD is entitled to 550,000 acre-feet. The tradition of surplus water coming to Metropolitan began when other Western states had not grown sufficiently to need their full allocations. Now those states are undergoing population booms and demanding their full share.

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