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A Water-use Ethic: Striving to Ensure Southern California's Water Supply

by Phillip J. Pace*
The San Diego Union Tribune, March 19, 1999

*PACE is chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

With all of the changes taking place in California's water industry, the one persistent question is "What's happening with the Colorado River?" The good news is we are close to an agreement that will keep the Colorado River Aqueduct full and will help maintain Southern California's economy. The major stumbling block is the inclusion of a water-use efficiency ethic in the California Plan for Colorado River use.A commitment to water-use efficiency is at the heart of Western water policy. Just take a look at the CALFED Bay-Delta Program. The one directive that has come from policy-makers as well as many public stakeholders isconserve first. In CALFED, as elsewhere in the West, the response to increasing scarcity and competition for water is a new water-use ethic that commits every stakeholder to maximizing their existing resources.

In Southern California, we have put our money where our mouth is. We've invested nearly $2 billion in conservation, water recycling and ground water storage programs. The region has reduced its need for imported water by more than 700,000 acre-feet each year. Without this decrease in demand, the Bay-Delta system would not have been able to meet its demands. Southern California's water supply reliability would have been in jeopardy. Moreover, the Bay-Delta ecosystem -- instead of moving toward recovery -- would have suffered irreparable harm.

Urban Southern California is not alone in its efforts to reduce demands for imported water. Wherever water supplies are limited in California, the first line of defense has been to implement water-use efficiency standards. During the past decade, deliveries from the State Water Project have been reduced by about 10 percent in dry years.

All state project contractors in the Central Valley and Bay Area have learned to make do with less. And because of increased competition for water supplies and increasing environmental protections, deliveries from the Central Valley Project have been reduced by as much as 35 percent, even during normal water years.

In the Central Valley, agricultural water users have had to improve irrigation efficiencies, reduce tailwater runoff and turn to more expensive alternative supply sources to meet their water demands.

water-use efficiency must become the foundation on which we build all of our water supply systems. Unfortunately, this essential first step was not incorporated into the Memorandum of Understanding between Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District and the Department of the Interior.

The proposed agreement was intended to lay the groundwork for the California Plan by helping to define how agricultural water usage in the Imperial and Coachella valleys should be quantified. But while everyone else who manages water in California was learning to live with less, IID was using more. Based on studies conducted for the Interior Department, there has been a dramatic increase in IID's water-use during the past 10 years.

This 400,000-acre-foot increase annually is particularly disturbing since Metropolitan has paid, to date, $160 million to help IID conserve more than 100,000 acre-feet annually. The simple fact is that Imperial -- a district that uses more water than any other state on the Colorado River -- is out of step with a new water-use ethic in California that is essential to solving our state's water problems.

Logic tells us that the Interior Department should incorporate water-use efficiency as a foundation for its agreement with IID and Coachella. Instead of requiring conservation before quantification, Interior's proposed agreement, rewards IID with a water allocation equal to their current usage of 3.1 million acre-feet.

To understand the inequities of this arrangement, it is important to remember that the intent of the proposed agreement is to solve Coachella's water supply problems by increasing their water deliveries from 330,000 to about 468,000 acre-feet annually. But the numbers in the proposed agreement don't add up.

If and when California's water-use is limited to 4.4 million acre-feet, 3.85 million acre-feet will first be available to four agricultural agencies and 550,000 acre-feet to Metropolitan. Palo Verde Irrigation District and Yuma Project Reservation Division have the first two priorities. Together, they take about 420,000 acre-feet.

If IID were to take 3.1 million acre-feet as proposed, that would only leave 330,000 acre-feet for Coachella -- an amount equal to its current water-use. Where is Coachella going to get the additional supplies the proposed agreement has promised them? From Southern California, that's where!

Rather than develop an aggressive water-use efficiency program, the proposed agreement will solve problems in the agricultural sector by taking water from the people of Southern California. And that is why it's patently unfair. Urban Southern California should not be responsible for meeting the water-supply needs of agriculture.

Let me emphasize, Metropolitan is not advocating a reallocation of water under the 1931 Seven-Party Agreement. The imperative that improved water-use efficiency be practiced statewide in no way undermines IID's water rights. Metropolitan has simply asked for clarification of how water-use efficiency should be included in the California Plan to preserve the public's interest.

Our recommendation to the Secretary of the Interior is straightforward: Conserve first, then quantify.

If we include in the California Plan a program to promote efficient water-use comparable to those required elsewhere, then it will be possible to allocate agriculture's 3.85 million acre-feet in a manner that is fair to everyone. Metropolitan is committed to making the California Plan a reality.

As a key element of this plan, the MWD Board fully supports the water transfer agreement between San Diego and IID. But Metropolitan is convinced that a California Plan that is equitable for urban and agricultural users as well as the environment must also include consistent standards for water-use efficiency.

As our population grows and competition for water supplies increases, we must all accept responsibility for the reasonable and beneficial use of our water.

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