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California and the West

Possible Solution Seen in Southland Water War

Resources: State official sees passage of possible bond issue as key to settling feud between the MWD and San Diego County. Dispute is over the costs of transporting Colorado River supplies.

June 23, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — After months of deadlock and recrimination, water officials from San Diego County and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California are close to striking a deal that could shape the water future of California, the state water director told legislators Monday.

David Kennedy, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said that officials from the two warring agencies have greatly narrowed their differences and the major remaining disagreement could likely be overcome if money from a possible state bond issue is thrown into the deal.

At issue is San Diego's bid to buy a portion of Imperial County's share of Colorado River water and transport it to San Diego through the Colorado Aqueduct, which is owned by the MWD. San Diego would like to buy up to 300,000 acre-feet of water a year, enough for 2.4 million people, thus cutting its dependence on the MWD.

Kennedy told a joint meeting of the Assembly and Senate water committees that the two sides are $100 million to $125 million apart in who should pay for certain infrastructure improvements involved in the deal.

If that amount of money were earmarked for the San Diego-Imperial deal from a state bond issue, there is a good chance the two sides could reach agreement, Kennedy said. "I'm very hopeful," said Kennedy, a cautious veteran of the state's water wars.

Kennedy's boss, Gov. Pete Wilson, would like to put a billion-dollar water bond issue on the November ballot for flood control, storage and conservation. The Legislature has until July 13 to decide to put such a bond measure on the ballot.

"We're running out of time," Kennedy said. "This is a huge amount of water and is of great significance to California--not just Southern California."

State Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Water Resources Committee, expressed optimism that the Legislature will back the placement of a water bond on the ballot, particularly after legislators learn its significance in getting the MWD and San Diego to reach agreement.

Officials from San Diego and the MWD agreed Monday that state bond money would make a deal much more likely.

"What I find most encouraging is that we now have a deadline," said Christine Frahm, chairwoman of the San Diego County Water Authority. "I think this deal is only going to come together under tremendous pressure."

Frahm and other San Diego officials have accused the MWD of trying to scuttle the San Diego-Imperial Valley arrangement to keep San Diego as a captive customer of the MWD. The agency has responded that San Diego is trying to shirk its responsibility to pay for MWD's overhead.

"I think it's a great help, absolutely," Brian Thomas, MWD assistant chief for planning and resources, said of Kennedy's proposal to use bond money. But Thomas stopped short of saying that the bond idea would definitely clinch the deal.

State's Water at Stake

San Diego is eager to buy water, and the Imperial Irrigation District is eager to sell it, but without use of the MWD's aqueduct, the deal is impossible.

The San Diego-Imperial Valley deal is key to the state's water future in two ways:

The first is the state's attempt to convince the federal government that it is learning to live within its allocation of water from the Colorado River.

U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, acting as the "river master" of the Colorado, has threatened to reduce California's annual take from the river. California has been drawing 800,000 acre-feet more per year than its allocated share, and Babbit is under pressure from other western states to make California live within its allocation of 4.4-million acre-feet.

To satisfy Babbitt and prevent him from reducing California's take from the Colorado River, Kennedy has been preparing a plan that involves farmers reducing their water usage and selling some of their water to thirsty urban and suburban areas. At the top of Kennedy's list of proposed methods is the San Diego-Imperial transfer.

The transfer is also important to the joint state-federal Calfed project to fix the many problems of the San Francisco Bay-San Joaquin Delta, the state's main watershed, which suffers from pollution, siltation and flooding.

Costa said that he has come to realize that resolving the San Diego-MWD impasse is key to the success of the Calfed project.

Canal Among Delta Options

State and federal water experts have devised three possible plans for fixing the delta. The plan that would benefit Southern California most directly includes a north-south canal around the delta, linking the Sacramento River and the State Water Project.

Such a canal would afford MWD and its customers a larger and cleaner supply of Sacramento River water. But it also raises the specter among environmentalists and Northern Californians of Southern California solving its water needs not through conservation and water transfers, but by merely sucking the Sacramento River dry.

The canal idea is enthusiastically supported by the Metropolitan Water District, wholesaler of water to 16 million people in six Southern California counties. San Diego has been a customer-member of MWD for half a century but has wanted for much of that time to have a secondary source of water that could not be cut back during times of drought.

Without a San Diego-Imperial deal as a sign of good faith to canal opponents that Southern California is trying to live within its water allocations, the chance that Calfed will even suggest the canal alternative appears to diminish.

"Any idea MWD has of expanding its capacity to take Northern California water south has got to be premised on a deal between San Diego and Imperial," said Tom Graff, attorney for the Oakland-based Environmental Defense Fund. "If that breaks down, MWD cannot come north and say, 'Oh and by the way, we want some more of your water.' "

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