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Sweeter Water Deal

August 28, 2002

Southern California has never had enough of its own water to control its own destiny, though conservation has bought it some time. The region's economic health ultimately depends on Northern California, on the Colorado River, on the willingness of farmers to sell water to the cities. This time around, the future may rest with the directors of the Imperial Irrigation District, who are to decide this week whether to approve a much-sweetened water deal with San Diego County.

The plan to transfer water from Imperial Valley farmland to coastal cities is the keystone of an effort to prevent a sudden federal cutback of water to Southern California from the Colorado River.

The river water will be lost over 15 years in any case, but if the Imperial deal fails, the federal government says it will cut the supply sooner as punishment. The cities would lose 800,000 acre-feet a year, enough to serve 1.6 million households.

However, Imperial district directors should sign the new San Diego offer not to help out their urban neighbors but because it's a good deal for Imperial. San Diego has newly offered to give the district $130 million in upfront money to offset the economic effect of fallowing land.

The Imperial fallowing program would be voluntary. Individual farmers would get a $700-per-acre bonus to start and $550 per acre a year, beginning in 2008.

The latest version of the deal also protects the Imperial district against legal liability for degrading the Salton Sea, the salty, polluted lake at the north end of the Imperial Valley. Imperial's irrigation runoff provides the sea's only supply of fresh water. If the runoff is reduced because of the water sent to San Diego, the quality of Salton Sea water will worsen, posing a threat to fish and birds.

Through an intricate exchange, San Diego's water would actually come from the Palo Verde Irrigation District in San Diego County for the first eight years. This provides a longer period for state and federal governments to find ways to preserve the sea.

Imperial also must take seriously a U.S. Interior Department threat that its own Colorado River supply will be cut if the district is found to be wasting water, as many experts believe is the case.

As important as agriculture is, the public, and even the courts, may wonder why Imperial should continue to get more than 3 million acre-feet from the Colorado River while metropolitan Southern California lives under a threat of having its usage cut by more than half, to just 550,000 acre-feet.

Like all things about water in the parched Southwest, the Imperial deal is complicated. But the consequence of its collapse is simple: a disaster for San Diego that is likely to spill over the rest of the region.

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