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Salton Repairs Peril Water Transfer

S.D.-Imperial Deal Could Face Higher Environmental Fees

By Michael Gardner
The San Diego Union Tribune, April 20, 2000

-- The San Diego County Water Authority may be forced to pay more or abandon its quest to buy water from Imperial Valley farmers.--

SACRAMENTO-- The groundbreaking water sale could be in jeopardy over fears that repairing any harm done to the ailing Salton Sea would become too costly. The sea is an invaluable migratory bird sanctuary near Palm Springs.

Meanwhile, a wild card has emerged in the form of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. The small but politically connected tribe enjoys a good relationship with Gov. Gray Davis and may oppose the San Diego-Imperial water transfer to protect its own economic interests.

More is at stake than water for the San Diego area. The transfer is an integral part of a far-reaching accord to reduce California's reliance on the Colorado River. If the transfer collapses, the entire river plan also may be put in danger.

"It's a political time bomb," said William Swan, an attorney for the Imperial Irrigation District.

Once the deal ratchets up, the San Diego County Water Authority would spend about $66 million for 200,000 acre-feet a year. The additional water, which is enough to serve 400,000 average households, would be a hedge against drought and provide for growth, officials say.

The Imperial Irrigation District has blitzed lawmakers in Washington and Sacramento in a pre-emptive lobbying strike against higher environmental protection fees for the Salton Sea.

"If they try to force us to pay more, it could kill the water transfer," warned Andy Horne, an Imperial Irrigation District board member.

Critics of the transfer draw parallels between the Imperial-to-San Diego plan and the now-infamous deal struck generations ago by Los Angeles that sucked water out of the once lush Owens Valley and lowered Mono Lake, a national treasure.

The Audubon Society and the Sierra Club also have raised questions about the potential impact.

San Diego County Water Authority officials are hesitant to speculate about any new fiscal burdens on Imperial Valley farmers.

"Right now it's premature to get excited," said Robert Campbell, an authority administrator. "They're doing a little jawboning."

Under the agreement, farmers would be paid to eventually save up to 200,000 acre-feet of water per year for sale to the water authority. If this was done, however, the water would not reach the Salton Sea to help dilute wildlife-killing salts and other contaminants.

A turning point will come in June with release of a comprehensive environmental study of the water transfer that will shed more light on costs, Horne said. The first delivery is not scheduled until after next year.

The San Diego authority already has committed $2 million toward preventing damage to the Salton Sea resulting from water losses. The Imperial district will pay $30 million. If Imperial's costs rose dramatically and threatened the deal, the water authority has the option of covering any additional costs imposed on the Imperial district.

The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905 when the swollen Colorado River burst through a levee and flowed for 18 months into a basin 220 feet below sea level. The shallow average depth of 31 feet exacerbates salinity buildup as water evaporates. Drainage from farms refills the sea, but not at a pace to maintain its size and elevation.

While great improvements have been made, even today fish carcasses litter the beach, birds die by the hundreds, and salinity levels rival the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

There is a concerted drive to restore the entire Salton Sea after years of neglect. But, at an estimated $1 billion, the cost may be so high that pressure will be put on the water authority and the Imperial district to commit more funds, local officials said.

Those fears are unfounded, insisted Davis Hayes, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Interior Department who helped negotiate the water transfer.

"The district should not be expected to pay for remediation at the entire Salton Sea," Hayes said.

Congress is likely to pay the largest share, with the state making up the rest, Hayes said.

Tom Hannigan, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said it is "fair" for Imperial to start raising questions because there is no guarantee that costs will not rise.

"People are looking for a certain comfort level," Hannigan said. "I don't see it as a problem, but it's fair to be concerned about it."

Then there's the Cabazon interest in the water transfer.

"We're just in a monitoring position right now to see where we fit into the overall plan," said Marc Benitez, a tribal leader.

But the tribe has signaled that it may oppose farmers' selling water to San Diego so as to protect its interests, including a casino, housing development, power plant and tire recycling facility near Indio.

Tribal leaders are in talks with federal officials to get more Colorado River water.

"We believe the water belongs to everybody," said Paul Slama, development coordinator of the Cabazon tribe.

In December, Davis appointed Cabazon Vice Chairwoman Brenda Soulliere to a key regional water board that oversees some of the Colorado River basin. The governor later named Mary Ann Martin Andreas of the Morongo Band to the same board.

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