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Colorado River Water Deal Sealed
Agencies will Divide Supply in Historic Pact

By Michael Gardner
The San Diego Union Tribune, October 19, 1999

Watershed deal: George Moses, an employee of the Imperial Irrigation Distric, worked a canal yesterday filled with water diverted from the Colorado River to imperial Valley farmers. As part of yesterday's agreement, Imperial Valley growers wopuld be paid to conserve water.

SACRAMENTO -- Three large Southern California water agencies yesterday ratified a historic agreement to share Colorado River water in a move with environmental and economic implications throughout the West.

The pact, which still faces about two years of scrutiny and public hearings, also would free the San Diego County Water Authority to buy water from Imperial Valley farmers.

"There's a great deal that needs to be done, but all of the really important issues are settled. We're more optimistic than we've been," said Joe Parker, chairman of the water authority board.


Good for up to 75 years, the agreement was unanimously approved by each California agency with legal rights to Colorado River water: the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District.

"This is a truly major milestone," said Ronald Gastelum, Metropolitan's general manager. "It sends a signal that we're going to meet expectations."

As part of the deal, Imperial Valley farmers would be paid to conserve water. A combination of water swaps, savings and sales would protect Metropolitan and Coachella from any losses.

"There is the realization that life as we've known it can't go on. The pressures on our water are too great," said Sue Giller, speaking for Imperial.

But will the savings be enough? This agreement would lower California's diversions out of the river from 5.2 million acre-feet a year to 4.8 million acre-feet. That's still 400,000 acre-feet short of the goal.

"This is the foundation. There's clearly going to have to be more (savings)," said David Hayes, who negotiated for the Clinton administration.

Watched from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, from Salt Lake City to San Diego, the accord plots a new political course for the Colorado River that has been pretty much unchanged since the 1930s.

As a result, Las Vegas could continue to sprout homes as well as casinos, Denver's mushrooming suburbs could push farther into the Rockies, and Arizona could grow more than cactus in its parched outback.

The deal also may have implications beyond river water users.

It can't be overstated "that peace in this area of the water world is of value to all of us," said Tom Hannigan, California's lead negotiator.

The deal should comfort farmers and cities north of the Tehachapis. Failure in the Colorado River talks might have forced quick, deep cuts in Southern California supplies. As a result, politically powerful Metropolitan, which serves 16 million users, could have demanded more water from the north.

A much-maligned, joint state-federal agency dubbed Calfed is developing statewide water policy. Much like the Colorado River negotiators, CalFed has been hamstrung by internal feuding.

"I don't see why the same (approach) couldn't help Calfed," Hayes said.

The sale of up to 200,000 acre-feet of water from Imperial Valley farmers to urbanized San Diego "has been a real trailblazer" and could serve as a model for how the state moves water from agricultural interests to urban areas during shortages, Hayes said.

The San Diego County Water Authority would buy water in increments of 10,000 acre-feet a year, up to 200,000 acre-feet annually. The new source would serve growth and buffer a drought. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough for two families of four for a year.

Those transfers would begin no sooner than 2005. Currently, the county water authority relies on Metropolitan for nearly all of its water.

The basic water agreement between Metropolitan, Imperial and Coachella was reached in August, but haggling over details delayed ratification until yesterday.

Both Gov. Gray Davis and the Clinton administration had threatened to impose a deal upon the water agencies if they could not agree among themselves.

For nearly 70 years, California and its neighbors honored an uneasy truce over river allocations. But as growth began to consume more water, states like Arizona, Colorado and Nevada clamored for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to slow the flows to California.

In Colorado, the Denver Water Department will need 100,000 additional acre-feet by 2040 to serve anticipated growth, according to Chips Barry, its general manager. This early sign from California that it can adjust "is a real positive," Barry said.

In the gambling mecca of the country, Nevada is creeping closer to needing its full share.

"We use a little more each year," said David Donnelly, deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority that serves Las Vegas. "We'll be using our full entitlement by 2007."

Donnelly does not expect California's spigot on the Colorado to be quickly turned down. "We've all talked about a soft landing," he said.

The agreement's timetable runs well into the next century. The environmental work and public hearings, a prerequisite to signing a final pact, will take nearly two years.

Hannigan said funds are included for environmental studies and protection.

But Tom Graff, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, wonders whether the agreement does much.

"Environmental issues were ignored," said Graff, noting that environmentalists were locked out of the talks.

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