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California and the West

Interior Secretary Pulls Out of Water Dispute

Allocation: Move halts mediation. State's share of Colorado River could be at stake.

February 11, 1999|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on Wednesday halted his attempts to mediate an increasingly bitter dispute between the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and two agricultural irrigation districts--a sign that a water deal considered key to the state's water future may be collapsing.

If negotiations fail between the MWD, the Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District, it could set off a domino effect that might prompt Babbitt to carry through on his oft-stated threat to reduce the amount of water California receives from the Colorado River.

Babbitt is withdrawing from the negotiations out of annoyance at the MWD's recent insistence that he consider changing the 1931 agreement that gives farmers more than 75% of the state's annual allocation from the Colorado River. The MWD suggestion, an eleventh-hour change in position after years of negotiation, has infuriated farmers and set off threats of litigation.

Babbitt told MWD directors two weeks ago that he does not have the authority to change the 1931 agreement and that the MWD's insistence otherwise threatens to scuttle a carefully negotiated water transfer between Imperial Valley and San Diego County. So far, the MWD has refused to back down.

In effect, Babbitt is calling the MWD's bluff to determine whether the agency will risk having the state's Colorado River share reduced by continuing to bring up the 1931 agreement as part of its negotiations with Imperial and Coachella.

On the other hand, if the MWD remains firm and declines to sign an agreement with Imperial and Coachella unless modifications are made in the allocation formula, it would test whether Babbitt's threat is real.

Many in the water industry believe that no secretary of the Interior will ever reduce water allocations to California and thus bring economic turmoil to the largest state in the nation, particularly as a presidential election approaches.

In a fax to all sides, Babbitt encouraged the MWD and the two agricultural irrigation districts to continue negotiations without his assistance--although history suggests that without outside assistance, California water disputes are rarely settled.

"It appears to me that the parties, having come so close to agreement in January, are now drifting apart," Babbitt wrote.

"I truly hope this does not signal the onset of yet another western water war."

Babbitt suggested that the California agencies settle their differences before he resumes his mediation.

Negotiations had been set to resume today in Los Angeles with a mediator assigned by Babbitt, and further meetings had been planned for Washington. At issue are matters of how much water each party can expect in dry years and wet years and who will pay for conveyance and storage facilities.

Under the 1931 agreement, California is assured 4.4 million acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado--with 3.85 million of that split among irrigation districts in the Imperial, Coachella and Palo Verde valleys, and 550,000 acre-feet allotted to the MWD.

In recent years, however, the MWD, which serves 16 million residents, has annually received several hundred thousand acre-feet above its allotment. With its entitlement and the "surplus" allotment, California's take from the Colorado River has reached 5.2-million acre-feet.

Babbitt has insisted that California go on a water diet and learn to live within its 4.4-million share because surpluses will not be available indefinitely. As a motivation for California to find ways to cut its water use, Babbitt has threatened to reduce the allocations of surplus water.

Jesse Silva, acting general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, said of Babbitt's withdrawal from mediation: "We're sorry that MWD's demand brought this situation on. We don't want to see it interfere with the San Diego agreement."

Joseph Parker, San Diego County Water Authority board chairman, said, "This is an unfortunate turn of events that could put our transfer [with Imperial Valley] in peril." He said the issue is made more difficult by "a certain amount of belligerence" by various parties.

The Imperial Irrigation District has agreed to sell up to 300,000 acre-feet of water a year to San Diego--enough for 2.4 million people--but the deal can only be consummated if the MWD, Imperial and Coachella dispute is settled.

MWD Chairman Phillip J. Pace declined to comment on Babbitt's move, referring instead to a letter sent Wednesday to Imperial Irrigation District officials. Pace wrote that he was heartened by comments made Tuesday at the MWD meeting by Imperial Irrigation District board President Bruce Kuhn that he would be willing to continue discussions with the MWD.

Pace, however, chose to overlook less accommodating comments, including a vow by Imperial board member Andy Horne that "I can assure you we will not stand by and allow our water to be taken. We will resist such efforts with every resource at our disposal."

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