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Window of Time For Water Transfer

By Lukas Velush
The Desert Sun, October 2, 2001

Officials say water plan will require federal help Deadline looms for agreement to reduce use of river water

The window of time left to save a massive water transfer critical to the Coachella Valley's plans for growth is closing.

Water district managers from all over Southern California have said they need federal and state help by the end of the year if they are to save the Quantification Agreement, an ambitious plan to both reduce California's use of Colorado River water and provide much of the water the region needs to grow.

Southern California's water districts are now conceding that they won't get federal help by the end of the year because Congress is busy coping with the recent terrorist attacks. Those who say the agreement will hurt the Salton Sea also appear to be slowing efforts to get federal help.

The water districts are now looking at January and early February as the do-or-die time when Congress must approve some form of federal legislation to keep the agreement alive.

"We have to get it done or there will be severe economic impacts (on) Southern California," said Tom Levy, Coachella Valley Water District's general manager and chief engineer.

The Quantification Agreement is California's plan to reduce its use of Colorado River water to 4.4 million acre-feet per year, the amount the state is legally allowed. An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre 1 foot deep, and would supply a family of five for one year.

California has been taking about 5.2 million acre-feet per year, but agreed to cut back to the legal amount by the end of 2002 after being pressured by other states which want their fair share of river water.

As part of the agreement, former U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave California 15 years to gradually reduce its use of river water if the water districts would agree to end several disputes between them.

However, the agreement is off, and California must immediately reduce its use to 4.4 million acre-feet in 2003 if the state's river water users don't approve the Quantification Agreement by the end of 2002.

Provisions: All provisions of that agreement -- including one that will increase the amount of river water the Coachella Valley will get from 330,000 acre-feet per year to 450,000 acre-feet per year -- have been resolved except one.

That problematic provision is transferring 200,000 acre feet of water per year from Imperial Irrigation District to the San Diego Water Authority. The environmental impacts the transfer would have on the Salton Sea are too severe for the water districts to fix on their own. Sending the water to San Diego would keep it out of the sea, causing the sea to shrink and its salinity to increase.

To that end, the water districts have been seeking federal and state help to cope with impacts to endangered species, such as the brown pelican and the desert pupfish.

Federal legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would provide $75 million to kick start the federal government's plan to save the sea. If that doesn't get started, then the $75 million would create an endangered species habitat on parts of the Salton Sea while the larger sea is ignored.

Critics of the legislation -- including Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs -- list the effects a smaller and saltier sea would have on endangered species and the quality of life effects on those who live around the sea as reasons to oppose the plan.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, has so far declined to introduce companion legislation and has asked Interior Department staff to find an internal fix.

Opponents also note that approving the currently proposed water transfer pushes the cost of fixing the sea from about $200 million to $300 million to over $1 billion. The federal government is also considering funding such a restoration effort.

"We suggest that they allow the transfer to continue without hurting the Salton Sea," said Steve Horvitz, chairman of Save our Sea II, an organization of citizens who live around the sea who are working to stop the water transfer. "If they did that, they would see a lot of the opposition toward the transfer fall away."

Levy said a lack of an agreement could be just as deadly for the sea because California would be desperate to get water for Los Angeles and San Diego if the state misses the deadline to have the Quantification Agreement signed. That could mean taking water from farms in Imperial County and the Coachella Valley.

Hoping for extension: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California -- the district that is responsible for California using more river water than the state is allowed -- wants the Quantification Agreement approved but is not counting on it.

If push comes to shove, the district believes that it could convince the Interior Department to give it more time to get the agreement signed.

"California, by the nature of how we are, is not a region that puts all of its eggs in one basket," said Adán Ortega Jr., Metropolitan's executive assistant to the general manager.

Lukas Velush covers the environment for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at
(760) 778-4625 or via e-mail at Lukas.Velush@thedesertsun.com.