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New Pact Unclogs Transfer of Water

Allows flow to S.D. from Imperial Valley

By Steve La Rue
San Diego Union Tribune, December 18, 1998

A new pact between two desert water districts removes a major obstacle to farm-city water transfers from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced yesterday.

The Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District, which often feud, have agreed to define their water rights in terms of specific volumes of water, rather than in terms of a cascading system of rights developed in the 1920s.

Under the former system, the Coachella district could lay legal claim to any river water not being used for agriculture in the Imperial Valley, a tactic that would block or stall the Imperial-San Diego water transfers.

"This sets the stage for water transfers to occur, and for an ag-to-urban water market to develop," Babbitt told Western water leaders yesterday at the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas.

"Considering the intensity that marks the Colorado River water wars, I would classify the progress to date as a minor miracle."

Christine Frahm, board chairwoman of the San Diego County Water Authority, said, "It was a very gratifying day for San Diego because it was the culmination of three years of work."

Jay Malinowski, chief of operations for the Metropolitan Water District, said the agreement is "certainly a positive step." He said the pact will allow talks to begin on the next phase of changes in river management -- procedures to allow Los Angeles-based MWD to maximize its draw of river water in wet years. The Imperial-Coachella agreement is the fourth major milestone this year along the way to the expected arrival -- beginning in 2002 or 2003 -- of an independent supply of imported water into San Diego County.

The water authority and the Imperial Irrigation District formally signed the transfer agreement last April. In November, MWD and the water authority agreed on a plan that will allow the conserved Imperial Valley farm water to be carried to San Diego County via MWD's 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct. The San Diego agency is MWD's largest water customer, and MWD has been the water authority's sole supplier of water imported from the Colorado River and Northern California rivers.

The third major event was Gov. Pete Wilson's signing late this year of a bill by State Sen. Steve Peace, D-El Cajon, to finance $235 million in water-saving programs, including lining two leaking, earthen canals that bring river water into California.

MWD will get some of this saved water, as will the Coachella Valley Water District. The pact announced yesterday guarantees that Coachella will receive about 40 percent more river water than it currently uses.

One environmental group criticized Babbitt's announcement for ignoring wildlife habitat's need for water, too.

"Secretary Babbitt made several announcements regarding diversions of even more Colorado River water for greedy agri-business and Sun Belt developers," said David Hogan, spokesman for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. "True to form, he made no mention of wildlife protection or habitat restoration."


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