U.S. Warns District in Water Dispute

Times Staff Writer

Threats and counter-threats continued Thursday, as the U.S. Department of the Interior warned the Imperial Irrigation District that its recent lawsuit could jeopardize California's effort to keep Colorado River water flowing to millions of Southern California homes.

The Imperial Irrigation District sued the federal government last week, accusing the Interior Department of illegally cutting the district's Colorado River supplies by 7%.

The lawsuit questions the Interior Department's authority to curtail deliveries to the district, which grows $1 billon worth of crops with enough water to supply 6 million homes a year.

In response, Interior Assistant Secretary Bennett W. Raley sent a letter Thursday to four Southern California water agencies, including Imperial. He warned that the district's lawsuit has forced the federal government to reconsider draft agreements that had taken years to reach. Those agreements include one in which federal water managers agree not to challenge the district's use of Colorado River water as wasteful.

Imperial has long stood accused of irrigating its farm fields excessively.

The agreements that Raley warned may no longer be acceptable are part of a wider deal that the four Southern California water agencies and Interior Department have been trying to reach for seven years.

A key element involves Imperial installing conservation equipment and selling some water to San Diego.

The Interior Department cut back Imperial's supplies after the four agencies, including the Coachella Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District, failed to reach agreement before Jan. 1.

Imperial attorney John Penn Carter called Raley's letter more proof of the Interior Department's long-standing bias against the district.

He said that the mood of negotiators for the MWD changed after Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton scaled back Imperial's supplies on Dec. 27 and diverted some to Coachella and the MWD.

MWD attorney Jeff Kightlinger called Raley's letter a setback.

"It's going to be a tough job to get ... back on track, and [Imperial's] lawsuit made it that much more difficult," he said.

Kightlinger denied that MWD's negotiating stance changed after Dec. 27. Instead, he blamed Imperial for making new demands that were unacceptable to the federal government.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World