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A fresh battle between Southern California water adversaries

Dead these hundred years, Mark Twain would wholly understand the dispute between the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Imperial Irrigation District over water flowing into the Salton Sea.

In the West, Twain is famously reported to have quipped, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.

In the world of water, Metropolitan and Imperial are behemoths, for different reasons. When these two clash, as they have done repeatedly in recent decades, other water agencies in the West fret and wait for the fallout. At stake is a lot of water and a lot of money.

Metropolitan serves more people (19 million) than any other water district in California. Farm-rich Imperial gets more Colorado River water (3.1 million acre-feet) than any agency in the seven states that depend on the river.

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Their latest dispute is at the level of strongly worded letters and tart comments. But water-war-tested lawyers are at the ready on both sides.

Metropolitan says Imperial is trying to wiggle out of a complex water sales agreement signed in 2003 that had taken the arm-twisting of two presidential administrations to cobble together. Imperial, whose officials signed the 2003 agreement only reluctantly, says Metropolitan is just being a water hog.

Both sides appealed to the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau, while seeming to tilt toward Metropolitan, sent a kind of “can’t we all get along?” letter last week to both sides suggesting a meeting between top officials.

The flashpoint is Imperial’s decision to pump some of its allotment of Colorado River water directly into the smelly, salty Salton Sea, that environmental invalid that straddles Riverside and Imperial counties and is loved by fishermen and migrating birds.

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Metropolitan, caught unawares by Imperial’s decision, insists that the river water belongs to its thirsty constituents in coastal Southern California.

It helps to know that distrust of the Los Angeles-based MWD is embedded in the political and cultural DNA of the Imperial Valley.

Some of the early farm families came to the Imperial Valley from the Owens Valley after its water was — pick your word — “appropriated,” “stolen,” “acquired” by Los Angeles.

Brian Brady says he was well aware of the turbulent history of Imperial Valley vs. MWD when he took the job as general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District two years ago.

But that’s not what’s behind the latest dispute, he said.

“There are longstanding cultural feelings and biases of Imperial Valley residents in relation to urban Southern California,” he said. “My job is to live up to the contractual conditions of the [2003 water deal] without regard to those feelings.”

Without contacting his board of directors, Brady decided to send 41,250 acre-feet of water directly into the Salton Sea to help reduce its salinity and to slow down the sea’s overall decline. That much water could satisfy the needs of 80,000 families for a year.

The 2003 agreement requires Imperial to send water into the sea — water conserved through fallowing of farm land or installation of water-conservation devices.

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Brady says the district can afford to send water directly into the sea because Imperial Valley farmers this year — due to the national economic slump — have reduced their acreage and thus do not require their full allotment of Colorado River water.

Under the 2003 agreement — as well as a 1931 agreement — Metropolitan is entitled to any portion of Imperial’s gigantic share of the Colorado River that Imperial does not employ for “beneficial uses.” When MWD heard of the plan to send water directly to the sea, it cried foul.

“We’re concerned [Imperial] is trying to change the agreement,” said MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger. “We’re taking a big hit. This is a lot of water.”

Kightlinger said Imperial is trying to avoid further fallowing or installation of water conservation equipment on farms. Next to Metropolitan, the most hated word to Imperial Valley farmers is “fallowing.”

Fallowing is also expensive. This year it cost $7 million to persuade farmers to fallow 16,500 of the valley’s half-million acres of farmland.

Brady and Kightlinger look at the same language in the 2003 agreement and reach opposite conclusions about whether sending water directly to the Salton Sea is permissible.

Brady: “The one thing that baffles me is that we have clear language in the [2003 agreement] that Metropolitan will not object to these uses and yet Metropolitan has yet to acknowledge that this contractual obligation even exists.”

Kightlinger: “We think it’s pretty straightforward despite how clever lawyers twist it.”

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If denied the 41,250 acre-feet, Kightlinger said, MWD would have to take more water from Lake Mead, the giant reservoir southeast of Las Vegas. That “westernized” the dispute beyond the boundaries of California.

Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority, sent a hot letter to the Bureau of Reclamation calling the Imperial plan “cavalier” and “shortsighted,” particularly in light of a decadelong drought along the Colorado River that has caused a significant drop in the water level at Lake Mead and threatens to cause a water shortage.

The bureau, acting as watermaster for its parent agency, the Department of the Interior, thinks some face-to-face discussion is in order. Brady is not convinced.

“We have differences on the issue,” he said. “I’m not sure what a sit-down would accomplish.”

One complicating factor is that the 2003 agreement is under attack in court by the Imperial County Board of Supervisors. A Sacramento County Superior Court judge has ruled some of its provisions, including one involving the Salton Sea, to be invalid and unconstitutional — a ruling that is under appeal by both Metropolitan and Imperial.

While the agreement is in court, Imperial is reluctant to enter into fallowing agreements with farmers that might prove unenforceable if the agreement is ultimately ruled invalid.

With that in mind, Brady said he decided to put water directly into the sea via drainage ditches, a process that should take six weeks and be finished by Christmas.

Brady was general manager of the Rancho California Water District in Temecula before being hired in Imperial; his predecessor had exited amid a controversy about electrical rates. And how has he found his tenure in the Imperial Valley, where water is a 365-day-a-year topic of discussion and debate?

“It’s been quite a ride,” he said.

tony.perry@latimes.com


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