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Water Talks Between MWD and Imperial District Break Down

August 21, 1986|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

Negotiations between the Metropolitan Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District over a plan to bring billions of gallons of Colorado River water to Southern California users during drought years have broken down, water officials said Wednesday.

The talks were ended when the MWD, which wholesales water to 27 agencies throughout Southern California, could not agree with the Imperial Irrigation District on a price for the water or who has the rights to it.

With the breakdown in negotiations, the Imperial district will seek to sell the water elsewhere, perhaps to the San Diego County Water Authority, according to Imperial Irrigation District spokesman Ron Hull.

Conservation Ordered

The negotiations were triggered when the state ordered the Imperial County district to find a way to conserve the water that each year drains into the Salton Sea because of leaks in its delivery systems. The MWD had offered to finance reconstruction of the district's leaky, dirt-banked canals in exchange for the right to buy at least 100,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water per year that would be saved as a result.

MWD was offering to buy the water for $100 per acre-foot a year, a total of $350 million over the 35-year life of the proposed agreement. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons. The average urban family of four uses about half an acre-foot of water a year.

MWD Executive Director Carl Boronkay said that the agency had regarded the plan as a way to avoid water shortages in dry years and that the cost of the improvements in the Imperial District would have been less than the cost of developing new supplies in Northern California or elsewhere.

Demand $250 per Acre-Foot

However, Imperial Irrigation District directors insisted on a price of $250 per acre-foot, sought to limit the agreement to 25 years and required the MWD to formally recognize the irrigation district's right of ownership over the surplus water.

The issue of water rights is a key to the agreement, according to both sides. MWD officials contend that the irrigation district's contract with the federal government only gives it the right to use the amount of Colorado River water that it actually needs to grow crops. Thus, any water saved as a result of repairs would revert to the river, where the MWD has first rights.

"Inefficient irrigation practices and water distribution facilities in IID have resulted in large quantities of water being wasted to the Salton Sea," Boronkay said. He said the state Water Resources Control Board has ordered the Imperial district to "take action to eliminate the continuing flow" of unused water into the Salton Sea.

Boronkay said that the two water agencies had reached a basic agreement on the price and the 35-year term of the agreement a year ago but that last month the Imperial district raised the price and demanded that the MWD recognize the irrigation district's right to the water in question. Both conditions were rejected by the MWD. "This latest proposal could have cost the MWD more than a billion dollars more than the original agreement," Boronkay said.

Threatened With Suits

Imperial district spokesman Hull said the irrigation district board felt either that it must have the $250-an-acre-foot fee or that the MWD would have to indemnify the irrigation district for the cost of any lawsuits protesting the diversion of excess water into the Salton Sea. "We've already been threatened with lawsuits (by environmental groups) if we cut off any water flows into the Salton Sea," Hull said.

Some conservationists contend that reducing the flow into the Salton Sea will disrupt fish and other wildlife habitats.

Hull argued that the district, by state law, has an absolute right to the water from the Colorado River that would be taken by the MWD.

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