There may be peace on the Colorado River at last. If so, 16 million Southern Californians can continue to rely on the Metropolitan Water District for adequate supplies for the next 75 years. The agreement approved last week by Metropolitan, the Imperial Irrigation District and Coachella Valley Irrigation District was called historic. It will be, if it sticks.
These agencies have agreed in the past only to have the deals founder when they were put down in legal and technical language. They must not allow that to happen again. The future of California water depends on it. The focus is particularly acute on Metropolitan because of a rare tongue-lashing the agency received from Gov. Gray Davis.
The plan is for California to reduce its use of Colorado River water to its legal allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet a year. The agencies have incurred the anger of other Colorado River Basin states and federal river managers by taking as much as 5.2 million acre-feet in recent years.
The pact is particularly important because it clears the way for San Diego to buy up to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year from Imperial in a pioneering farm-to-city water deal of the sort that will allow the state to meet its future growth needs. Metropolitan, the primary Southern California urban distributor, is a linchpin in the trade since San Diego needs to use the agency's aqueduct to get the water to its taps. For two years, Metropolitan insisted that it supported the Imperial-San Diego exchange, but just as often moved to block it.
Davis threatened to impose his own solution to the 60-year Colorado allocation dispute if these negotiations failed--a chilling prospect for Metropolitan. As the talks were concluding, Davis told Times columnist George Skelton that the MWD "needs to be put out of its misery. It's the most ineffective organization on the planet Earth." Metropolitan also has been under attack from critics in the Legislature who contend the agency is out of control.
Coincidentally, the MWD hired four high-powered outside consultants--including two former congressmen and the state Democratic Party chairman--to communicate the district's policies and goals to federal and state decision-makers. Too often it appears that the MWD is pursuing a go-it-alone strategy that is at odds with other agencies and federal and state officials.
The MWD said one goal of the new consultants is to "bring old perceptions about the district in line with current reality." The advisors might also benefit the MWD by telling the agency when the current reality is not in the best interests of California's water destiny and its own customers.
A major test will be the ability of Metropolitan to maintain a good faith commitment to both the Colorado River agreement and the Imperial-San Diego trade. That would be a major step forward for all of California.