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Salton Sea Plan Could Hurt State
Water Supplies

By Clyde Weiss
Donrey Washington Bureau, Las Vegas Review Journal, March 13, 1998

WASHINGTON -- A bill to save California's Salton Sea may threaten Nevada's own water interests, Rep. John Ensign cautioned Thursday.

Lawmakers from both states insisted the Salton Sea will not become a new battleground in the West's water wars. But Ensign, R-Nev., and Richard Bunker, chairman of Nevada's Colorado River Commission, fired warning shots during a House committee hearing.

Ensign said he is concerned because California already draws nearly 1 million acre-feet more than its annual Colorado River water allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet.

Any attempt to pump more water into the state from any source, including the Colorado, would make it more unlikely the Golden State will be able to decrease its dependence on the river, he said.

The House bill, supported by the Republican leadership and on a fast track to pass this year, calls for a 12-month study of possible solutions to the buildup of salinity and pollution in the inland sea.

The bill was introduced last month as a gesture to the late Rep. Sonny Bono of Palm Springs, who made saving the 378-square-mile sea in Southern California his personal mission.

To the dismay of lawmakers from Nevada and Arizona, the bill permits California to divert excess Colorado River water from recent high-water flows into the Salton Sea.     

"Water makes the most furious fights of anything in the West," Ensign said. "When you're talking about possibly using surplus (water), we're afraid this could mess up the deal between Arizona and Nevada."

In that proposed deal, Nevada would help pay to store Arizona's unused allocations from the Colorado River, while Nevada in return draws equal amounts from Lake Mead.

Although Ensign did not explain exactly how the Salton Sea bill and its excess water provision would threaten that deal, he said the mere mention of California drawing more water from the Colorado "raises everybody's ears."

Bunker said Nevada could support the bill only if California ensured that the state would draw no more than its annual allotment of 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, a promise that one California lawmaker said is doable.

 "I think we can all work together to come to a solution," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. "I think we can do this thing without it infringing on any of the water that you folks need."     

But Bunker said the bill, as drafted, "will exacerbate California's continued over-reliance upon Colorado River water to the detriment of Nevada and the rest of the basin states.

"It seems to us that before any further federal demands for water are created, California should first implement a plan to live within the permanent supplies to which it is entitled," Bunker testified.
California lawmakers repeatedly tried to assuage the Nevadans' fears. But Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., said afterward that the state's reputation makes that job difficult  

"What you're seeing here is a historic paranoia that California is going to try to grab extra water," Brown said. Although that's not the state's intention, he insisted, California's history tells a different story.

"It's like the people up in Owens Valley," he explained. "They're all scared to hell of L.A. because we once stole water from them. Most of the (river) basin states are afraid of California because we've stolen water from them over the years."

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