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Playing Monopoly for Keeps With Our Water Resources;

Water: The Salton Sea is at risk as the MWD fights to keep its supply stranglehold

By: GEORGE E. BROWN Jr.
Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1997

George E. Brown Jr. (D-San Bernardino) is a member of the Congressional Salton Sea Task Force

The Colorado River is the most critically important source of fresh water in the Southwest. Three players--Imperial Valley's farmers, San Diego's water utility and the Metropolitan Water District--are jockeying for access to supply the growing water needs of the region.

The MWD has long been a monopoly supplier of water to communities in the area, including San Diego. Although San Diego is the MWD's largest single customer, it is in a precarious position, having a lower priority than Los Angeles. Driven by uncertainty regarding future water supplies, San Diego has sought to break the MWD's stranglehold on the resource.

The Imperial Irrigation District, recognizing San Diego's needs, is negotiating to help the city. The Imperial Valley is entitled to more than half of the Colorado River water taken in California. The farmers are proposing to sell water they can conserve to San Diego.

But there is a rub. The aqueduct is owned by the MWD, which has sought to block the deal through an exorbitant charge for use of its aqueduct and an irresponsible plan to take agricultural waste water needed to replenish the Salton Sea and redirect it after treatment to the MWD's own Los Angeles aqueduct.

If the MWD carries the day, it would reinforce its monopoly over wholesale water use in the region, provide a disincentive for agricultural water conservation and, most disastrously, drive the Salton Sea ecosystem into rapid, total collapse.

The Salton Sea, California's largest lake, is a fragile ecosystem under tremendous environmental strain. A critical link in the Pacific migratory bird flyway, it serves as a substitute for the lost wetlands of the Los Angeles basin. Unfortunately, it also serves as a sink for agricultural runoff and polluted sewage from Mexico. As a result, its rate of collapse is increasing due to high levels of salt and contaminants. Sadly, so many birds and fish are dying that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has installed a larger incinerator to dispose of the bodies of thousands of dead birds.

Recognizing the stakes, a bipartisan Congressional Salton Sea Task Force, chaired by Reps. Sonny Bono (R-Palm Springs) and Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) aims to put a rescue plan in place.

The Salton Sea is a beautiful oasis that must be saved. San Diego is entitled to seek more secure sources of water than the MWD provides.

Imperial Valley farmers should be allowed to craft a deal that rewards them for water conservation. If the MWD wins this struggle, it will be a regional disaster and a national disgrace.

 

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