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2 Major Water Projects Might Dry Up

Resources: Fears for environment imperil desert plan. Sale to San Diego County also appears shaky.

June 29, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two proposed big-ticket water projects meant to prevent Southern California from suffering severe shortages appear increasingly in doubt over questions of money and the environment despite years of planning and debate.

On Thursday, a U.S. Senate committee passed a bill that included a provision inserted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that, in effect, could kill a 50-year plan to pump water from beneath the Mojave Desert.

And on Friday, the governing board of the water-rich Imperial Irrigation District made clear its lack of enthusiasm for a proposed 75-year sale of water to San Diego County. A move is afoot on the board to back out of the sale.

The Mojave Desert and Imperial Valley projects are seen by water officials in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego as crucial to the state's ability to offset a threatened reduction of its allocation from the Colorado River.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 210 words Type of Material: Correction
Water project--A story Saturday in the California section about endangered Southern California water projects stated that a monitoring system was devised by Cadiz Inc. and the Metropolitan Water District. The Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey also participated in devising the monitoring system.

"Our bleak water future may be here quicker than anyone thought," said Steve Erie, a political science professor and water expert at UC San Diego.

More than half of the water distributed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to 17 million people in six counties comes from the Colorado River.

California is under increasing pressure from the federal government to reduce its reliance on the river by finding new sources and by arranging sales of water from farms to cities.

For several years California has been taking water that rightfully belongs to other states, and now those states want the federal government to clamp down on their thirsty neighbor to the west.

But water issues are never solved easily or quickly, even with the state facing a Jan. 1 deadline to find alternative sources or face a cutback from the Colorado.

The Feinstein provision would prevent the Department of Interior from spending any money on a proposed deal between the MWD and Santa Monica-based Cadiz Inc. for use of an aquifer beneath land owned by Cadiz in eastern San Bernardino County.

Feinstein agrees with environmentalists, ranchers and staff of the U.S. Geological Survey that the project could deplete the aquifer and harm the fragile desert environment--an assertion disputed by the Bureau of Land Management and by scientists working for Cadiz.

The Interior Department is studying the project. Cadiz has hired the former law firm of Interior Secretary Gale Norton to lobby the Interior Department on behalf of the project.

In a letter to Norton, Feinstein has suggested limiting the amount of "indigenous" water that can be pumped from the aquifer to 5,000 acre-feet a year. The proposed deal between the MWD and Cadiz envisions pumping six times that amount. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons--the volume necessary to meet the needs of two families for a year.

"We're frustrated that our project has been through five years of environmental review, and now something like this comes up at the last moment," said Cadiz spokeswoman Wendy Mitchell.

She declined to say whether the company would still consider the project economically viable if pumping was limited to 5,000 acre-feet.

MWD executive Adan Ortega called the Feinstein provision "just another bump in the road. We've grown used to seeing things pop up that we didn't anticipate."

Ortega noted that the House version of the Interior Department appropriation bill does not include a similar provision, and thus, if the full Senate adopts Feinstein's provision, there would have to be negotiations between the two legislative bodies.

Under the proposed deal, the MWD would store "excess" water from the Colorado River in the aquifer. During dry years, that water and the "indigenous" water would be pumped out for use in the six counties that depend on the MWD. The storage plan would require construction of a spur from the MWD's Colorado Aqueduct.

Feinstein's provision would bar the Interior Department from issuing a right-of-way over government land for such a spur.

She agrees with environmentalists who do not trust the monitoring system devised by Cadiz and the MWD to determine the rate at which the aquifer is being depleted. The water agency has agreed that pumping would be immediately shut down if the water level was dropping faster than predicted.

At issue is an arcane scientific debate over how quickly the desert aquifer is replenished by snow melting in the mountains.

"Rather than relying on a monitoring plan that has never been used before to prevent overdrawing the aquifer, why not limit the project

Even as officials in Washington and Los Angeles and environmentalists pondered the effect of Feinstein's provision, another water issue was being hotly discussed in the Imperial Valley town of El Centro.

The Imperial Irrigation District governing body voted 4 to 1 to accept an environmental report on the proposed sale of water to San Diego County, but only after a clause was written to establish that accepting the report does not mean the board approves of the sale.

"I think our next step will be to find a way to terminate the [sale] agreement," said board member Andy Horne.

Board Chairwoman Stella Mendoza is so opposed to the sale that she voted against accepting the environmental report.

Horne, Mendoza and others are worried that, to save water, Imperial Valley farmers will be forced to leave fallow portions of their fields, which could have a severe economic effect on a county where agriculture is the top industry.

They are also concerned that $1 billion of the proceeds from selling their water to San Diego would have to go to offset decreased flows to the Salton Sea. The inland body of water, straddling Imperial and Riverside counties, depends on agricultural runoff, which would be reduced by the water sale.

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