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Water Deal Hits Snag on Effort to Save Salton Sea

By Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times, Monday, August 20, 2001

Resources: State may not meet deadline that allows it to continue taking extra water from the Colorado River.

SAN DIEGO -- The proposed sale of water from water-rich Imperial County to arid San Diego County, considered a key to the state's efforts to avoid a devastating cutback of how much it can take from the Colorado River, has hit a serious snag involving money and environmental concerns.

The problem centers on complex and controversial efforts to devise a politically and scientifically acceptable plan to clean up the ailing Salton Sea, which straddles Imperial and Riverside counties.

Because the sea's main source of replenishment is agricultural runoff, any reduction of water usage in Imperial County to sell water to San Diego must, by federal law, consider the negative impact on the already deeply troubled Salton Sea. But plans to devise a rescue strategy for the Salton Sea are far behind schedule, and there is no assurance that the federal government will pay for such an effort, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The result is that it appears California will not meet a deadline set by other Western states, which have become increasingly annoyed that California annually takes more than its legal allotment from the Colorado River.

In January, the other six states that depend on the Colorado agreed to give California a 15-year grace period in which it could continue receiving "surplus" water from the river.

That grace period can be revoked if California fails to meet a series of deadlines, including one for consummating the deal between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) this month introduced legislation to break the stalemate over the Salton Sea, rescue the Imperial-San Diego deal and keep the "surplus" water flowing to California.

Hunter's bill would allow the water deal to be finalized even before a Salton Sea plan is devised and would allocate $60 million as a down payment toward saving the sea from rising salinity.

The bill faces an uncertain future.

Hunter's HR 2764 has drawn opposition from an environmental group and comes as Congress is being asked to bail out another endangered California water program, the joint state and federal effort to rescue the polluted Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California.

The Bush administration has only recently begun to involve itself in the seemingly intractable problems of water disputes in the West, and has yet to show if it will spend much political capital in seeking peace among warring factions.

In a rare show of unity, water officials throughout Southern California are attempting to rally public support behind the Hunter bill.

"If we don't have this legislation," said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, "the energy crisis will pale by comparison."

Stapleton envisions a doomsday scenario in which other Western states lose patience with their behemoth neighbor and demand as early as 2003 that the state no longer be allowed to use water that rightly belongs to others.

Dennis Underwood, Colorado River specialist with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, takes a more optimistic view. He notes that Congress in 1998 endorsed a bill by Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) pledging to save the Salton Sea.

"From day one, we knew that the environmental work and the Salton Sea were going to be very difficult," he said. "I'm optimistic we're going to get there; there's too much at stake not to."

The Colorado provides about a third of the water used by urban and suburban communities in Southern California. Of that, more than half is "surplus" water in excess of the state's legal entitlement.

California has been using in recent years about 800,000 acre-feet of water more than the 4.4 million acre-feet that the state is allotted under a variety of agreements.

Much of that water has been available because Arizona and Nevada did not need their full allocations. Now those states are growing rapidly and, in effect, want California to stop using their water.

The Clinton administration spent eight years trying to wean California away from surplus Colorado River water and force the state to live within its allocation. Eighty-five percent of California's entitlement belongs to three agricultural irrigation districts.

Under persistent goading from then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, California water agencies put in place various conservation plans and other water-saving programs. One was the proposed sale of 200,000 acre-feet of water each year from Imperial County to San Diego County.

The 15-year plan would allow California to redouble its conservation programs and make other farm-to-city water deals.

The state has until the end of 2002 to win federal approval for a Salton Sea plan.

But a set of proposals developed by the Salton Sea Authority and the Interior Department received a cool reception last year in Congress, in part because of fears from Western legislators that it would require more Colorado River water.

"When it arrived in Congress, it was dead on arrival," said Tom Levy, general manager of the Coachella Valley Water District.

The Hunter bill would lift the 2002 deadline and limit the right of environmentalists to file lawsuits.

The Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity opposes the bill. David Hogan, urban wild lands coordinator for the group, charges that water officials "waited until the last minute to do their environmental homework and now they want Congress to write them an excuse."

The Oakland-based group Environmental Defense, a major voice in water issues, supports the Hunter bill and sees the water deal as "preferable to the construction of new environmentally destructive dams and canals."