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Wilson In La Mesa To Sign Water Bill

It's Wilson's Big Step Toward Gaining The County An Enlarged Supply

By Steve La Rue
The San Diego Union Tribune, September 26, 1998

Sitting atop a giant water tank in La Mesa yesterday, Gov. Pete Wilson launched $235 million in water conservation projects and erased a major obstacle to farm-city water transfers from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County.

"This is not just a piece of paper I will be signing,"Wilson told an audience of about 100 water officials and political leaders who joined him atop the 21 million-gallon tank at the Alvarado Water Treatment Plant.

"It is the culmination of the single largest core transfer of water from agricultural use to meet urban needs in the history, certainly of this state and, insofar as we know, of any state."

The bill Wilson signed approves $235 million for water conservation projects including the lining of the All American Canal in the Imperial Valley and a branch of that canal that brings Colorado River water to the Coachella Valley. About 94,000 acre-feet of water -- which now seeps into the ground through the canals' earthen bottoms -- will be saved annually.

An acre-foot is about 326,00 gallons, enough to serve the household needs of two families of four for about a year.

The Metropolitan Water District, the Los Angeles-based importer that provides water to smaller agencies throughout Southern California, will receive some of this conserved water. Approval of the canal-lining bill was a condition of an Aug. 12 agreement under which MWD will pump up to 200,000 acre-feet of conserved Imperial Valley water into San Diego via MWD's 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct, and at a competitive cost.

Without this pact, there would have been no way to get the water to San Diego.

"We have made great strides toward enhancing the reliability of San Diego County's water supply, and now we have the means to bring the water here," said Christine Frahm, chairwoman of the San Diego County Water Authority board of directors.

In a prepared statement, John Foley, MWD chairman, said the state's investment in the huge water conservation project "will yield enormous dividends."

Foley attended the ceremony and told the gathered water community, "I want to express our true support and thankfulness."

MWD had been seen by some County Water Authority delegates and San Diego legislators as resisting the Imperial-San Diego water transfer, overtly and covertly. But the giant agency had been under great legislative pressure to accommodate the transfer and allow the water authority, its largest member agency, to obtain an independent, additional supply.

Several bills to change the makeup of the MWD board had been introduced in the legislature. State water experts also had made it clear, as Wilson did yesterday, that they considered the Imperial-San Diego transfer a key element of the state's long-term water policy.

The $235 million project "not only provides a safeguard for our $87 billion economy and its job base, it bridges the gap that for too long has divided this region and this state," said Anne Evans, chairwoman of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

"I am now happy to say that San Diego and the Metropolitan Water District are now partners in a common endeavor."

Several obstacles remain before the water transfer is certain. Among them, local, state and federal authorities must agree on how much Colorado River water the Imperial Irrigation District is using properly, how much is being wasted, how much can be conserved and how much should go to the Coachella Valley, which claims this conserved water.

Lloyd Allen, president of the Imperial district's board, reflected this view in a prepared congratulatory statement.

"One piece of the water puzzle is now closer to being put in place," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

The San Diego agency currently imports about 430,000 acre-feet of water via MWD, and will need the additional 200,000 acre-feet to supply the needs of new residents and businesses.

This increase in San Diego County's supply is expected to lead to increases in river water supplies during wet years for MWD, Coachella and some other California agencies.

In recent years, California has used about 18 percent more Colorado River water than it is entitled to take under a collection of laws and pacts called "The Law of the River."

The $235 million investment in water conservation and Imperial-San Diego water transfers are seen as proof to other river states and to U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt that California is serious about living within its entitlement.

If satisfied that California can live within its river water budget, Babbitt and some river states have indicated they will allow California to share in future wet-year surpluses on the river.

The $235 million bill also is expected to settle water claims by Indian bands in North County, whose rights to water from the San Luis Rey River were judged to have been violated by the city of Escondido and the Vista Irrigation District.