Davis Cools Water-Dispute Rhetoric

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis moved Friday to soften his administration’s confrontational rhetoric toward the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and pledged support for the district’s controversial plan to buy $10 million worth of water from farmers in Northern California.

In a letter to the top Western water official in the Bush administration, Davis offered the “full cooperation of the state of California” in finding a reservoir to store the water, which the governor’s administration had previously threatened to let spill into the sea. The district purchased the water for shipment to Southern California during “dry” years.

“If we work together, I am optimistic that MWD will receive the water they purchased,” Davis wrote to Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley.


The governor’s letter came at the conclusion of a week of tough talk and political maneuvering in Sacramento and Washington over water issues that pit Northern California against Southern California, San Diego versus Los Angeles, and California against six other Western states that depend on the Colorado River.

On Tuesday, the Davis administration sent the state’s water picture into further disarray by announcing that it would not allow the giant Southern California water supplier to store 100,000 acre-feet of water -- enough for 200,000 families for a year -- in Lake Oroville, the state’s reservoir north of Sacramento.

In making the earlier announcement, a gubernatorial spokesman said the MWD had made a bad business deal by buying water without having a place to store it. And the governor’s top water negotiator said the agency could not look for state help at Lake Oroville while, at the same time, resisting another water sale that the governor thinks is crucial to the state’s survival.

Tuesday’s action was widely seen as the governor’s attempt to pressure the MWD to approve the other deal: a sale by the water-rich Imperial Valley to thirsty San Diego County. Davis, like his Republican predecessor, supports the deal, but the MWD board has expressed reservations. The MWD owns the aqueduct needed to deliver the water to San Diego.

On Wednesday, the Western water czar for the federal government offered to find space in a U.S. government reservoir for the 100,000 acre-feet. Raley suggested that to do otherwise would constitute an unconscionable waste of a precious resource by the Davis administration. With no place to store it, the water would pour into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and then into San Francisco Bay and the ocean.

Outmaneuvered politically, Davis continued to maintain Friday that the state reservoir at Lake Oroville is full while writing Raley that he appreciates the offer of federal storage space.

At the same time, the governor said he is calling officials of the four water agencies involved in the stalled Imperial-to-San Diego sale to a meeting Monday in Sacramento.

Ronald Gastelum, president and chief executive officer of the MWD, a regional wholesaler that provides water to 18 million people in six counties, said he was gratified by the governor’s statement. “No one, north or south, supports waste,” Gastelum said.

One of the most divisive issues in the Imperial-San Diego deal involves how to fix some of the problems of the Salton Sea, which survives on agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley. If the Imperial Irrigation District sells water to San Diego, the amount of runoff will decrease, raising the salinity level of the environmentally imperiled sea.

Federal law requires that partners in any water deal arrange to repair resulting environmental damage. Davis, in a last-minute effort to save the San Diego deal, has proposed spending $200 million from Proposition 50, the $3.1-billion bond measure passed by state voters in November to provide for water and environmental projects.

MWD board members have yet to endorse the idea of spending that much money from the bond measure for the Salton Sea, noting that there was no indication during the election campaign that the sea would receive such a large amount.

“Our member agencies, outside San Diego, are convinced that if you spend Proposition 50 money in a way different than the voters were promised, next time you go after [state water bond] money, somebody is going to remember and you’re not going to get it,” said Adan Ortega, MWD vice president.