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Conservation Is Key To River Water Plan

Agricultural drip irrigation is among the ideas to cut California's dependence on the Colorado.

By Laurie Koch Thrower
The Press-Enterprise, May 13, 2000

By banking water when it's plentiful and conserving with everything from concrete-lined canals to low-flush toilets, California can learn to live with its share of the Colorado River, according to a report released by the Colorado River Board of California.

The draft report is in response to a 1996 requirement from the U.S. Interior Department that would cut California's future dependence on Colorado River water.

"It sets that road map of how we are going to meet our needs," said Dennis Underwood, the chief expert on Colorado River affairs for the Metropolitan Water District, Southern California's largest water wholesaler, and one of the plan's architects.

The plan, Underwood says, nails down the state's share of the Colorado for the next 75 years, and gives officials a guide for the type of investments they have to make to secure enough extra water to accommodate growth.

"It brings certainty to the water supply for people that are using the Colorado River that has not been there for years," Underwood said.

Developing new water resources is a key to surviving the river reduction plan, said Gerald Zimmmerman, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California.

"For the additional growth that will be in California, you're going to have to implement additional conservation measures," and secure more water supplies, he said.

Desalting water and buying water from outside areas are options the state may pursue, Zimmerman said.

The plan calls for transferring up to 500,000 acre-feet from agricultural to urban use, but that water will come from conservation methods, not a reduction in crop activity.

Agricultural conservation outlined in the report includes installation of drip irrigation systems and lining hundreds of miles of canals with concrete to lessen water seepage.

Conservation measures in the Coachella Valley are expected to save another 65,000 acre-feet a year by 2035, according to the report.

The Metropolitan Water District, which owns the aqueduct that brings river water to the state, has relied on the river to make up 50 percent to 60 percent of its supply.

In anticipation of a diminishing supply of water, the district has been socking away water. A prime example: the 800,000-acre-foot Diamond Valley Lake reservoir in the Winchester area.

The water district is considering putting water in underground aquifers at Hayfield, the Coachella Valley and the Mojave Desert.

According to the draft report, local agencies buying water from the Metropolitan Water District already have embarked on water conservation plans dating to the late 1980s, including retrofitting some 1.5 million toilets for low-flush use, distributing about 3 million low-flow shower heads and encouraging drought-tolerant landscaping.

These efforts have saved about 480,000 acre-feet of water a year, and similar measures are expected to yield an additional savings of 500,000 acre-feet a year, according to the report.

The Interior Department wants California to live up to a 1922 agreement that gives the state the right to 4.4 million acre-feet of river water a year. The Interior Department expects the cutback to be phased in over the next 15 years.

For decades, the state has siphoned out up to 5.2 million acre-feet a year by taking unused portions from other states. An acre-foot is about enough water to serve eight people for a year.

The other six states are waiting to see whether California is "truly serious" about living within its allowance, said Buzz Thompson, a natural resources law professor at Stanford University.

"It's one thing to come out with a plan, another thing to come up with a plan that's workable," Thompson said.

Water agencies in Arizona and Nevada have not yet had time to review the document when it was released Friday. But Vince Albert, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority said, "We're interested to see what impact it has on the overall system and Southern Nevada."

"We're hoping to move this process along as fast as we can," said Jack Lavelle, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Water Resources. "We recognize it's a very complicated deal."

In 1996, the Department of Interior put California on a water budget to ensure that the other six states entitled to Colorado River water will get their fair share to feed their growing cities. Over the next 15 years, California's allocation will gradually be scaled back to 4.4 million acre-feet.

Water agencies previously at odds over shares of the river water came to the table to craft the water board's plan.

"It was a major achievement when the agencies put aside longstanding legal positions for the good of California as a whole," said Zimmerman, of the Colorado River Board.

Staff writer Jennifer Bowles contributed to this report.

Laurie Koch Thrower can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 760-654-0564.

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