LOS ANGELES — Metropolitan Water District officials Monday proposed an immediate $300-million aqueduct expansion to bring more Northern California water south, but San Diego water authorities--whose customers would pay the largest portion of the costs--quickly questioned the plan as premature.
MWD General Manager Carl Boronkay said construction must begin as soon as possible to avoid shortages during dry years through 2005.
But several MWD representatives from the San Diego County Water Authority, which has increasingly been at odds with the MWD staff's policy proposals over future water supplies, saw far less urgency to the situation, saying that cheaper alternative supplies might be available.
Boronkay wants the matter to be decided at the March meeting of MWD directors. San Diego, which purchases 30% of the district's water, making it MWD's largest customer, expects to demand a delay, although Boronkay called any postponement "a threat to the region's dependable future water supplies."
At a special workshop here Monday, MWD officials said that the expansion would allow Southern California water agencies to receive additional State Water Project supplies already allocated to them but unavailable because the pipelines into Los Angeles County are too small. The expansion would take five to seven years to complete.
The water has not been needed until now because MWD, which supplies half the water used by 13 million urban Southern Californians, has been able to tap the Colorado River for the bulk of the region's use--at costs cheaper than the state water from the Sacramento Delta.
However, as Arizona begins taking a larger share of the river during the next several years under terms of a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision, California's portion of the Colorado will be cut by almost two-thirds. For that reason, MWD officials say they will need to take the full 1.5 million acre-feet of state water from Northern California to which they legally have title.
The problem, from Boronkay's point of view, is that MWD pipelines can handle only 1.2 million acre-feet a year, or 300,000 acre-feet less than the present entitlement.
"We must avail ourselves of the (state) water to which we already have rights to," Boronkay said.
Boronkay's proposal calls for expanding an existing aqueduct that now runs water from State Water Project facilities at the Los Angeles-Kern County line east through Antelope Valley into San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The water is then distributed west into Orange County and south into San Diego County.
Boronkay selected the so-called East Branch alternative over another proposal that would tunnel the water 34 miles east from the San Fernando Valley into the San Gabriel Valley for distribution.
A major reason for his selection, he said, was the ability to build the aqueduct expansion in stages as opposed to the tunnel, which would require a much larger initial capital outlay.
In particular, the first phase of the East Branch enlargement would be just enough to handle the extra 300,000 acre-feet. Additional expansion could follow if the state Legislature approves controversial work on the State Water Project to enlarge Sacramento Delta channels and bring another 300,000 acre-feet or more to Southern California. That water will be needed after 2007, Boronkay said, but would take at least 10 years to obtain even after the Legislature approved construction.
Boronkay said Monday that he is optimistic about the negotiations between MWD and the Imperial Irrigation District in El Centro over ways that MWD could pay for improvements in the agricultural system in return for as much as 250,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water the Imperial district would save. In fact, Boronkay's calculations for avoiding shortages through century's end assume both the additional State Project Water and Imperial Valley conservation.
However, San Diego officials dispute Boronkay's claims that there are not additional supplies to be gained from conservation and other measures along the Colorado.
At the minimum, they argue that MWD can afford to wait on aqueduct expansion until agreements are reached with Imperial to find out exactly how much water will be available.
"The key for San Diego (before any decision on expansion) is to first come to grips with the future Colorado River supply," Michael Madigan, an influential San Diego County Water Authority member and MWD representative, said after Monday's workshop. "We need to know whether Imperial is the only potential source (to replace the Colorado River water lost to Arizona) or whether there are others.
"In short, we want to be confident that if we vote to expand (the aqueduct facilities), it is based on definitive information showing that expansion is the only way to go."
San Diego has been in the forefront in arguing for alternatives to building more facilities for carrying state water south. The authority strongly backs negotiations with Imperial and is still considering a plan to buy its own water from a private Colorado company, although MWD officials and Western state water planners have lambasted the plan as unworkable legally.
San Diego customers would have to pay at least $45 million of the $300 million expansion envisioned by Boronkay.
"We want to know exactly what costs are involved for us," said Larry Michaels, general manager of the San Diego authority. "They certainly won't be as cheap as trying to find additional Colorado River water."
Harry Griffen, a 25-year veteran on the MWD board from San Diego, said he thought that MWD could wait "up until 10 years" before needing to make a decision on aqueduct expansion.