Still Hope for Water Pact

California appears to be in a dramatic fix if you look at the facts of the latest chapter in the state's legendary water history. However, when it comes to water, everything important happens under the surface. Southern California may yet keep its swimming pools and industrial base.

Here's the story so far: Facing the loss of more than half of its Colorado River water supply, the Metropolitan Water District, wholesale distributor for 17 million Southern Californians, bargained with three other water agencies right up to a Dec. 31 deadline, which had been set two years ago by the Interior Department. When midnight tolled and the talks foundered, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton figuratively turned the tap and cut California's annual use of Colorado River water by nearly 20%, with the south hit harder than the north. Never had the federal government taken such extreme action regarding a state's water supply.

Metropolitan officials began talking about living with the loss of about 420,000 acre-feet, enough to supply 1 million households. California would have to get along with less. But the deal isn't really dead. There's still time for California to recapture the water, with a little skillful pressure.

The Imperial deal would transfer about 200,000 acre-feet a year from desert farmlands of the Imperial Valley to urban San Diego County. Metropolitan and the Coachella Valley Water District were involved in the talks between San Diego and the Imperial Irrigation District because complex swaps would affect the supplies of all four entities.

The Imperial-San Diego trade was the keystone of a broader agreement between California and the six other Colorado River Basin states under which California would cut its river take from 5.2 million to 4.4 million acre-feet over the next 15 years instead of instantly. California had been using water above its legal allotment for years because the other states didn't need it. That era has ended. But midnight came and no plan. End of chapter? Not quite.

The fact is, the deal was about 98% complete. What's needed to get it over the hump is someone who can get the parties talking again. San Diego County's state senators have asked Gov. Gray Davis to get involved. Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg ably brokered earlier negotiations, but at this point experts agree that it will take the stature of the governor's office to get to a final agreement.

Some state lawmakers proposed simply taking water away from Imperial to punish it for drawing out the negotiations with repeated new demands. That is no solution. What will work in the end is a voluntary agreement among the four parties, to the benefit of all.

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