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It's Outrageous

November 11, 1987

Leaders of the Metropolitan Water District are justifiably outraged at the latest proposal of the Imperial Irrigation District for use of Colorado River water that currently is wasting into the Salton Sea. MWD calculates that the use of 100,000 acre-feet of water annually during the 25-year contract period proposed by the irrigation district would cost MWD as much as $1 billion. Consider how much Imperial Valley land--and the water that goes with it--that Metropolitan could buy for $1 billion. If Imperial has fears of the Southland "stealing" its water--a la Los Angeles and the Owens Valley--that thought should strike real terror into the IID board.

With an annual cost-of-living increase demanded by Imperial, the cost to Metropolitan of Imperial's proposal would be about $365 an acre-foot, or three times the cost of alternative sources available to MWD. The two giant water agencies tentatively agreed on a fee of $100 an acre-foot in 1985 to finance conservation facilities in the 500,000-acre farming area. IID then decided to back out on the deal. Imperial now pays the federal government about $9 an acre-foot for its Colorado water.

But the worst feature of the new IID proposal may be that Imperial could limit Metropolitan's use of the 100,000 acre-feet to years in which MWD is drawing at least 650,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, or 100,000 acre-feet more than MWD's basic Colorado entitlement. In other words, MWD might not have access to the Imperial water in the dry years when it most needs it.

For Metropolitan, a major impetus for the proposed water deal is to secure a long-term supply to make up for the Colorado River water that will be lost to Arizona as Arizona increasingly consumes its entire 2.8 million acre-foot allocation. With the Central Arizona Project going into operation, Metropolitan's legal claim to Colorado River water drops from 1.2 million acre-feet annually to 550,000 acre-feet.

For Imperial, a major and more immediate impetus is pressure from the state Water Resources Control Board to stop wasting water. The state board has claimed that as much as a third of the 2.6 million acre-feet Imperial takes each year from the Colorado--more than is consumed by the entire city of Los Angeles annually--is lost through inefficient use. Imperial's engineering consultants figure the district can save roughly 500,000 acre-feet a year.

Another major disagreement between the two districts is whether Imperial can sell its water to Metropolitan or anyone else. Imperial maintains it can. But Metropolitan says that any water not used by Imperial automatically becomes MWD property because Metropolitan has the next highest priority on Colorado River water use in California. This is why MWD insists that the arrangement with Imperial only be an exchange: MWD finances conservation facilities in the Imperial Valley and then gets use of the water saved.

Should Imperial push this issue, Metropolitan is bound to sue. And such a lawsuit could bring into question the entire "Law of the River" that allocates Colorado water use among seven states and Mexico, and between agricultural and municipal users within California. The outcome of that case might jeopardize the massive water allocations made years ago to farming areas and recognize the increasing demand for water in urban regions.

But the reasons for agreement between Metropolitan and Imperial are too compelling to allow the negotiations to fall apart. There is a danger of both sides becoming implacable. If necessary, some third party might be called in as a mediator. And at some point, the state board will have to set a firm deadline for Imperial to stop the water waste. That should make serious negotiation all the more compelling.

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