Basin-Delta Mothersite

News And Nontechnical Articles

Salton Sea Home Page

Battle Lines Drawn Over Water Rights

By Tony Perry
The Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1999

Growth: Metropolitan district's decision to seek reconsideration of Colorado River split is met with legal saber-rattling by farm interests.
In the first shot of what could become an urban vs. rural water war, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California voted Tuesday to ask Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to reconsider the 1931 agreement that gives farmers the lion's share of the Colorado River.

The Imperial Irrigation District, the state's largest user of Colorado River water, immediately vowed to wage a court battle to block any MWD-backed change in the agreement--a battle that could tie up California's water planning for years.

"Lawyers and others who counsel Metropolitan to find additional water in the courtroom or in the [political] hearing room are willing to gamble the Southern California economy on a water-use litigation lottery," Bruce Kuhn, president of the Imperial Irrigation District's board of directors, wrote to the MWD's board chairman.
Kuhn's ire was raised by a statement of principles adopted by the MWD's board of directors that criticizes the Department of Interior for giving "inadequate attention to its obligation" to see that Colorado River water is distributed "in the manner that best meets the public need."

In water-speak, that means MWD would like to see a change in the formula that gives approximately 75% of California's annual share of the Colorado River to the Imperial Irrigation District and three smaller agricultural districts, which distribute it to farmers in the Imperial, Palo Verde and Coachella valleys and in the Yuma, Ariz., area. Most of the rest goes to MWD, but is considered inadequate for the region's growing needs.

Each year the MWD must wait for the secretary of the interior to determine whether there is surplus water in the Colorado River that the MWD can buy and distribute to its member agencies, which serve 16 million people in six Southern California counties.

The annual surplus determination is both nerve-racking to the MWD--which is left to wonder each year whether Southern California will receive enough water--and fraught with political controversy. Other states that depend on the Colorado River are increasingly uneasy with California receiving such surpluses.

"We just can't go on another six, seven, eight years with this kind of uncertainty on the Colorado River," said Henry Barbosa, vice chairman of the MWD board. "This is not a hostile act. We just want to solve a problem."

The MWD action represents a partial break with the drive by state and federal officials, including Babbitt, to trim California's use of the Colorado River by encouraging water sales from the agricultural districts.

The board action says that Babbitt "would place unreasonably large water and monetary burdens on urban Southern California ratepayers" by requiring those ratepayers to pay some of the costs of conserving and storing water in the agricultural areas.

There has long been sentiment at the MWD that it is time to break what some see as the agricultural districts' hegemony over California's water supply by forcing a change in the 1931 allocation formula so urban and suburban areas will receive more water and the surplus water issue is resolved.

The MWD statement used language that was sure to rile the Imperial Irrigation District, by referring to water wasting in the Imperial Valley and by suggesting that there is something wrong with the Imperial Irrigation District's plan to earn a profit by selling Colorado River water to San Diego County.