The giant Imperial Irrigation District thought it could thumb its nose and walk away from a deal to sell water to Southern California cities. The federal government said differently, and Imperial too will suffer unless it comes quickly to a reasonable agreement.
The water district board of the farming valley decided this week, after two years of negotiation, not to ratify a well-paid transfer of some of its allotted Colorado River water to thirsty cities. The board rejected a proposal to transfer up to 7% of its water to urban San Diego County in exchange for roughly $3.5 billion and assorted other goodies, including help for businesses hurt by farm cutbacks. Imperial just kept demanding more until the bell tolled midnight Tuesday and the "surplus" Colorado water that Southern California has been tapping for years turned to dust, yanked back by angry federal officials.
The district board had thought it could reject the water swap with impunity because it had historical first use of the river water. The Interior Department finally said otherwise last week.
The transfer was the keystone of a broader agreement among California and the other Colorado River user states for California to scale back its chronic overuse of the river over 15 years. Without the deal, the state faces an immediate cut of about 800,000 acre-feet, enough to supply more than 1.5 million households for a year.
Under Imperial's claim to an inviolate water right, the full cut would have fallen on the Metropolitan Water District, which wholesales water throughout Southern California. Water would have continued to gush onto the fields while city folk faced perhaps severe shortages.
But the Interior Department, which governs Colorado River flows, unearthed a 1932 contract that limits Imperial to about six acre-feet annually for each acre of cropland then under irrigation, which comes to less than farmers are currently using.
Imperial will lose 200,000 acre-feet, about the same amount it would have sent to San Diego, but without getting the $3.5 billion or anything else. Imperial says it will sue the Interior Department, continuing a costly battle it is likely to lose in the end.
San Diego is not trying to steal the water, and the transfer would not end the farming tradition in the Imperial Valley. In view of the federal mood, the agreement that Imperial rejected should be looking more desirable all the time.