Bill Targets Water District for Failed Deal

Times Staff Writers

Upset at the collapse last month of a water sale from the Imperial Valley to San Diego, two lawmakers vowed Tuesday to introduce legislation cutting the Imperial Irrigation District's Colorado River supplies.

Democratic state Sens. Mike Machado of Linden and Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica said they will propose limiting the desert district in California's far southeastern corner to no more than 2.6 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River. That would be nearly 20% less than the district has historically taken.

The punitive bill also would make the irrigation district responsible for sending enough water to the Salton Sea, which depends on runoff from Imperial Valley farm fields, to protect endangered fish and birds.

Machado and Kuehl accused the district of harming all of California. When the district and other agencies failed to agree on a water sale and conservation plan by Dec. 31, the federal government cut by half the amount of Colorado River water flowing to urban Southern California. The state is taking no more than its legal limit from the river.

For the Metropolitan Water District, provider of water to 17 million people in Southern California, the federal cutback on New Year's Day has meant the loss of enough water to supply 2 million people.

MWD officials say they have enough water in storage -- with other purchases in the works -- to avoid rationing for at least several years, and could compensate for the loss over the next 20 years with conservation by Southland residents and other strategies.

Machado, who farms near Stockton, accused the Imperial district of wasting water on crops and being intransigent at the expense of the rest of California. "It affects and threatens the California economy, its quality of life and its environment," he said. "I do not believe that any single entity should be allowed to affect the destiny of a whole state."

On Dec. 9, the Imperial Irrigation District board rejected an agreement that had already been approved by the boards of the MWD, the Coachella Valley Water District and the San Diego County Water Authority. Talks continued through New Year's Eve, but no deal was reached.

Imperial board President Lloyd Allen said the board is disheartened by the Machado-Kuehl approach.

"IID has spent seven years and nearly $25 million trying to put together a transfer that helps urban Southern California and our agricultural district," Allen said. He called the proposed legislation "unfortunate and counterproductive."

Machado and Kuehl said they expect to introduce legislation next week, and they may ask the governor to declare a special session of the Legislature to deal with the bill. That would allow a bill to take effect within 90 days on just a majority vote. Otherwise, Machado and Kuehl must win passage of the bill with a two-thirds vote for it to take effect before next January.

The proposed legislation raises many legal and policy questions, because it calls for state interference with a federal water contract to a degree that many experts say they've never seen before.

Machado and Kuehl insist that the state has the authority to limit the Imperial Irrigation District, which was created by the Legislature, to taking no more than 2.6 million acre-feet annually from the Colorado River.

Imperial Valley farmers have historically used 3.1 million acre-feet a year.

A 1979 court decree between California and Arizona allows the district 2.6 million acre-feet.

Assistant U.S. Interior Secretary Bennett Raley said he hadn't seen details of the new bill and could not speculate on whether the federal government would abide by a state law limiting water to a district.

The Machado-Kuehl proposal got a cool reaction in the office of Gov. Gray Davis, where a spokesman said the governor would prefer to see a deal reached without legislation.

Officials at the San Diego County Water Authority, which was willing to spend $2 billion to buy water from the Imperial Valley over the next 75 years, said they remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached soon.

"We believe if the agencies are brought back together, we can continue the work and reach a successful conclusion to those agreements," said Assistant General Manager Dennis Cushman.

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