A Thirsty, Ornery Gorilla


The only long-term way to assure California cities a steady water supply is for farm areas to sell some of their huge allotments to urban areas. The fact is indisputable, with plenty of farmers willing to sell at the high prices cities are willing to pay. Actually getting it done is a long political nightmare.

Take, for instance, a groundbreaking deal to trade water between farmers in the Imperial Valley and growing urban San Diego. The groups involved include the Imperial Irrigation District (representing the farmers), the Coachella Valley Water District and the San Diego County Water Authority. Those three are in agreement on a complex deal worked out over contentious years of talks. What’s holding it up is the fourth partner, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which controls the aqueduct that would carry the water.

For months, the groups have been near an agreement to send enough Colorado River water from Imperial to San Diego to meet the household needs of 400,000 families for a year. Metropolitan, the water wholesaler for six Southern California counties, now claims its costs in the deal would be too high.


The MWD for decades has been the water politics gorilla of California. In recent years, its attitude has been increasingly that what’s good for the MWD is good for others. Increasingly, the others have found that the MWD’s position is not so good for them.

The MWD’s latest complaint was that a pending agreement would use some $200 million in state bond funds to save the Salton Sea, which stays viable because of runoff from Imperial Valley fields. The MWD claimed that money was supposed to go to its own member districts for their projects. It countered with a proposed fee on all Colorado River use, which would heap an unfair burden on Imperial.

Others have responded with a compromise -- some fees, some state funds. This is a fair approach.

San Diego officials still suspect that the MWD is really angling for a bigger share of Imperial’s Colorado River water. A recent federal declaration that Imperial farmers are wasting their allotment could help the MWD on that quest. But whether Imperial’s water went to the MWD or San Diego, the Salton Sea would still need protection and San Diego would still need an assured water supply. The Imperial-San Diego agreement would save wasted water and protect the Salton Sea. The MWD is helping no one by sabotaging a deal it helped to craft.