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California and the West

Desert Valleys Renew 64-Year-Old Water Duel

Colorado River: Imperial and Coachella rivals must settle their quarrel before San Diego can get its increased allotment.

September 06, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THERMAL — As California water disputes go, the 64-year grudge the Coachella Valley holds against the Imperial Valley does not rate among the more celebrated.

There have been no armed insurrections, no aqueducts blown up, no Hollywood movies, no big city politicians or newspapers locked in combat, and no Supreme Court cases (at least not yet).

The outside world has given little notice to the aqua-centered enmity involving neighboring valleys in this hot, sandy, forbidding portion of the California desert.

But now the internecine water skirmish in an isolated corner of the state is about to have its moment at center stage both in Sacramento and Washington. The road to the state's water future may go straight up California 111 as it ribbons through the flatlands of eastern Riverside County.

It may have seemed last week that the historic water transfer between the water-rich Imperial Irrigation District and the thirsty San Diego County Water Authority--touted as key to maintaining an adequate water supply for California--was a done deal.

After cajoling and arm-twisting by Gov. Pete Wilson, the Legislature appropriated $235 million to smooth over differences between San Diego and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California over the use of the latter's Colorado Aqueduct.

Still, water wonks know a sizable hurdle remains before the San Diego-Imperial deal can become reality. They know that until the Coachella Valley-Imperial Valley quarrel is settled to Coachella's satisfaction, not a drop of water from the Imperial Valley's share of the Colorado River is likely to flow to San Diego. The budget bill says as much, in Chapter 7, Section 12562(a)(3).

Unless the farmers and water managers of the Coachella and Imperial valleys are able to strike a deal and bury their feuding past, there is a good chance that the San Diego-Imperial water transfer could be delayed or even scuttled.

Quietly, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has been trying for months to get the two sides to reach a compromise. So far, negotiations have been fruitless.

A veteran water watcher describes relations between officials of the two warring agencies as "chilly, very chilly, even when it's 120 degrees in the desert."

This week, Babbitt's hand-picked mediator will meet in Washington with representatives of the two valleys and the MWD for two more days of talks.

Coachella Valley Resents 1934 Deal

The stakes are enormous: Babbitt has threatened to reduce California's take from the Colorado River unless the state becomes more water-efficient through arrangements like the San Diego-Imperial transfer. The Colorado provides 70% of Southern California's water supply.

At issue is the Coachella Valley's fervently held belief that it was cheated in 1934 by being forced to take a back seat to the Imperial Irrigation District when it came to divvying up water from the Colorado River.

As Coachella sees it, the Imperial district--the biggest user of Colorado River water in the seven states that depend on the river--connived with the federal government to steal water that rightly belongs to Coachella.

"The government put a shotgun to our heads in 1934 and they're doing it again," grumbled Mike Bozick, manager of a grape and citrus growing and packing firm in Mecca. "The government's attitude has never changed: To hell with Coachella."

To Bozick and others, the outrage of 1934 is compounded by the current deal that would allow the Imperial district to sell up to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year to San Diego and make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Before it will accept such a deal, Coachella wants more water, maybe two-thirds as much as Imperial wants to sell San Diego. Imperial officials are resisting and also suggesting that it is time for Coachella farmers to stop festering over ancient grievances.

Coachella farmers believe that the deal between San Diego and the Imperial Irrigation District gives them what they've lacked: leverage to force a change in the 1934 agreement.

The Desert Grape Growers of California last month sent a strongly worded manifesto to the Imperial Irrigation District insisting on more water for the Coachella Valley to rectify the inequity imposed in 1934.

The Imperial general manager wrote back stiffly that "it is important to work at solving problems of the future rather than dwelling on perceived differences of the past. We encourage you and your colleagues to join that approach."

Coachella is threatening to litigate--which could block the San Diego sale and throw the carefully cobbled plans of state and federal water officials into disarray. Whether that would prompt Babbitt, or his successor in future administrations, to carry through on the threat to cut back on California's take from the Colorado River is unknown.

Coachella officials see no reason to drop their demands for more water just because Wilson and Babbitt want the San Diego-Imperial deal consummated.

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