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Ensuring a Water Supply for San Diego County

By Joseph Parker*
The San Diego Union Tribune, February 2, 2000

As we enter a new century in which water transfers will play an increasingly important role in meeting water reliability objectives in California, it is important to reflect upon the role pioneering legislators have played in paving the way for this critical water reliability tool.

By 2002, water is expected to begin flowing into San Diego County from the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer ever executed in the United States. By 2012, up to 200,000 acre feet will be transferred annually into the county -- enough to serve the annual water needs of 400,000 families.

The day water begins to move under the historic Imperial Irrigation District-San Diego County Water Authority Water Conservation and Transfer Agreement signals not only a new era of reliability in San Diego County, but also a milestone toward solving reliability challenges in the state.

The success of the most significant water supply reliability programs in California -- from CALFED's efforts to fix the Bay-Delta, to the California
4.4 Plan's goal to reduce the state's use of Colorado River water -- will depend on a successful water-transfer market. When water from the IID-Authority transfer flows into San Diego County, a handful of California legislators should feel a sense of accomplishment, for they were the ones who toiled for years to open up California to water transfers.

The involvement of San Diego County legislators reaches back two decades, to 1982, when Assembly Members Richard Katz, D-San Fernando Valley, and Larry Stirling, R-El Cajon, authored Assembly Bill 3491, which expanded opportunities for water marketing. The legislation made it the state's policy to facilitate the voluntary transfer of water and directed state agencies to encourage voluntary transfers. It specifically encouraged water conservation measures that make additional water available for transfer -- just the kind of transfer agreement the authority reached with Imperial Irrigation District.

Four years later, in 1986, Katz strengthened the foundation for a water market with Assembly Bill 2746, which stated that a transfer of water cannot be denied the use of a water conveyance facility that has unused capacity if fair compensation is paid for that use. Opening up access in water conveyance facilities having excess capacity is critically important if water is to move in a water transfer market.

In 1996 Sens. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and David Kelley, R-Idyllwild, co-authored Senate Bill 900, a water bond measure known as the "Safe, Clean, Reliable Water Supply Act." Its passage meant $995 million for water projects statewide, including $2.5 million for a study of an aqueduct to convey transferred Colorado River water to the San Diego region. That study is under way.

The next year, in 1997, Kelley authored Senate Bill 1082, a pivotal piece of legislation that provided a mechanism for preventing opponents to water transfers from erecting artificial financial barriers to proposed transfers. It required the state's direct involvement -- through the state director of water resources -- in the MWD-Authority negotiations. In so doing, the bill advanced the transfer of conserved agricultural water from IID to the authority and strengthened the state's support.

The Water Authority worked for two years to obtain an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to convey the IID transfer water to San Diego County, and the leadership of two legislators provided the breakthrough the authority needed.

In August 1998, Sen. Steve Peace, D-El Cajon, and Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, D-Sherman Oaks, led marathon negotiation sessions in their state Capitol offices to hammer out an agreement. On Aug. 12, 1998, the authority and MWD reached a memorandum of understanding on a 30-year exchange agreement to convey the transfer water to San Diego County. A contingency in the agreement, however, required the state to fund $235 million of conservation projects in Southern California. Peace and Kelley, with the support of authors of a water bond measure that year by Costa and Assemblyman Mike Machado -- secured a spot in the water bond bill to provide the $235 million.

As fate would have it, however, the bond bill was not passed two weeks later. With less than 24 hours left in the legislative session, Peace and Kelley -- with the unanimous support of the San Diego legislative delegation -- made a bold push to secure the $235 million through the state budget. Senate Bill 1765, sponsored by Peace, garnered more than two-thirds votes in both houses in the final legislative day and was signed into law by the governor in a signing ceremony in La Mesa on Sept. 25, 1998.

Passage of Senate Bill 1765 would not have been possible without the support of Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles, and the San Diego legislative delegation. On Nov. 10, 1998, after negotiating for nearly three years, the Met and the San Diego County Water Authority signed the Water Exchange Agreement.

Finally, the last major agreement associated with the Authority-IID water transfer was reached Oct. 15, 1999, thanks in large part to Machado's Assembly Bill 1584, a water bond measure. A provision of this bill stated that terms quantifying California's agricultural water rights to the Colorado River had to be reached by that date or the governor would set them. After repeated missed deadlines, this deadline was met and another linchpin in the California 4.4 Plan was in place.

Assembly Bill 1584's successful passage in the Legislature means Californians will have a chance on March 7 to vote on the $1.97 billion Proposition 13, "The Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Watershed Protection and Flood Protection Act." Sens. Peace and Kelley were successful in getting $3 million in the proposition to fund continuing studies of a proposed aqueduct to convey water to the San Diego and northern Baja California regions, adding to the original allocation for the studies provided through the 1996 water bond.

Over the past 20 years, the accomplishments of all these leaders have built upon one another, securing new water opportunities for this region and, indeed, all of California. Securing, too, water reliability for future generations.

*Parker is chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority Board of Directors.

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