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Erase Doubts on Water Deal

For more than five years, the giant water agencies that control California’s supply from the Colorado River have struggled to solve the state’s most threatening water problems. Present and predicted shortages have pitted farmers against cities, and the big water-distribution agencies against other governmental bodies.

Now, in an ugly twist, the huge Metropolitan Water District faces accusations that it may have colluded with the federal government to kill a hard-won deal to send water from farms to city users. The evidence is thin, but the implication is that the MWD, which serves 17 million Southern Californians, didn’t want to deal with the state’s environmental demands.

Neighboring states and the federal government have long demanded that California reduce its historical overuse of Colorado River water by as much as 600,000 acre-feet a year. That’s enough to supply 1.2 million households. San Diego County, which potentially could be hit hardest by the reduction, has desperately sought a new water supply to meet growth demands.

County officials finally reached a complicated agreement last October with the Imperial Irrigation District, in agricultural Imperial County, under which the county would pay handsomely for former irrigation water to be delivered over MWD pipes. In return, the federal government would let California keep using excess Colorado River water for 15 more years. Whew.

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A string of seesaw retractions and threats followed. The deal seemed dead more than once. The Interior Department went ahead and reduced California’s water flow, including some to the Imperial district. Imperial sued and a federal judge on March 18 ordered restoration of the water. At the hearing, Imperial’s lawyer disclosed a long e-mail from one federal water official to another relating a meeting with Metropolitan officials.

In this message, marked “draft” to keep it confidential, the water district seemed to say it would be better off without any agreement. Its representatives were quoted as saying they would rather have the federal government handle the environmental issues involved, including the fate of the Salton Sea, because the state has tougher environmental laws. The Salton Sea, an accidentally man-made salt lake, depends on agricultural runoff; it would need an alternative supply of water or some sort of restoration plan if Imperial runoff declined.

Some expressed shock at the e-mail, though California’s turbulent water history makes it look pallid. Federal and Metropolitan officials shrugged it off as meaningless.

Publicly, Metropolitan says it backs the agreement, but the allegations about its dislike of the deal raise doubts. The agency could restore some of its credibility through aboveboard lobbying in Sacramento, wholeheartedly in favor of the deal.

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