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Don't Let Salton Stop Deal

August 08, 2002

The Colorado River is running at a relative trickle this drought year. Once-foaming white rapids in some sections are dribbles. The Rocky Mountain snowpack that recreates the river every year was scant last spring. Colorado and other states are understandably stepping up pressure on California to begin cutting back its excessive use of the river's water.

California has less than five months to put its water thrift plan in place or face a dramatic cutback by the Department of the Interior. The department has warned state government water officials and the directors of the giant urban and agricultural water districts every year that they have to find ways to reduce their take of the Colorado River by enough to meet the annual household needs of 1.6 million families.

For years, the other Colorado River states didn't mind California's excess use, since they weren't using their full allocations and there was a surplus.

And California did develop a plan to meet its Colorado River limit over 15 years. A key to it was a deal in which the San Diego County Water Authority would buy about 200,000 acre-feet a year from the Imperial Irrigation District, which has its own sources of water; the accord called for farmers to be paid to fallow their land. That agreement is falling apart, but the need to cut back remains.

Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley is under increasing pressure from the other states to cut California's take of the river if the state fails to meet a Dec. 31 deadline.

Sometimes it seems like every drop of water in the Southwest is spoken for more than once. For instance, the farmers of the Imperial Water District currently dump the runoff from their irrigation into the Salton Sea. Though the runoff is polluted, it is relatively fresh for the super-salty, desolate Salton Sea and keeps it from dying for lack of new water. If farmers fallow the land so they can sell their water allotment to San Diego at a handsome price, the runoff will cease and the district might have to pay millions of dollars to mitigate the damage to the Salton Sea.

Saving the Salton should not be put on the backs of the Imperial Valley farmers and should not be allowed to stop this water trade.

To see a real environmental catastrophe, imagine urban Southern California suffering an immediate cut of more than half its Colorado River water supply. Picture brown gardens, empty swimming pools, unflushed toilets, zero development and high-technology companies fleeing.

State and federal governments can help by assuring farmers they won't be held responsible for the fate of the Salton Sea. Then both sides should sign the deal without quibbling.

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