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U.S. Plans 'Loan' of River Water to Farmers

November 22, 2002|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Even as the U.S. Department of Interior pushes California to rein in its use of Colorado River water, agency officials said Thursday that they may boost water supplies to farmers in the state who depend on the river to irrigate their crops.

The plan, if approved by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, would likely send between 150,000 and 225,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Mead on the Colorado to farmers in the Imperial Valley and southeastern California. That's on top of the approximately 800,000 acre-feet of surplus water that Southern California already takes from the river each year.

That 800,000 acre-feet is enough to supply the city of Los Angeles with water for a year.

"When the Bureau of Reclamation informed water users in Nevada, Arizona and California of this year's water supply [on the Colorado], the other states adjusted their water use and California asked for more," said Bennett Raley, an Interior Department assistant secretary.

The decision by Interior comes as negotiations continue on a complex deal to transfer some of Imperial Valley's rights to Colorado River water to the San Diego County Water Authority. The deal is seen as important because it helps reduce Southern California's reliance on the Colorado -- which must occur soon, as the region is scheduled to lose its right to take surplus river water after 2015.

But the new loan of water, in effect, means that the region is not cutting its use of the Colorado, but rather increasing it. That troubles environmentalists, who say it only encourages further profligate use of the river's water by farmers.

"When the water users ask Interior for water, they get it, and when we ask for water for the environment, we don't," said Pamela Hyde, executive director of Southwest Rivers, based in Flagstaff, Ariz.

The Imperial Irrigation District, which will likely be the largest recipient of the new loaned water, is the only one of four concerned water agencies that has not yet backed the water transfer deal. A vote on the transfer by the district's board is scheduled for next month.

Interior officials want the transfer to go through, but they said that approving the water loan for the Imperial Valley is not intended to influence the board's decision.

Raley and other Interior officials said that a three-year drought has had a severe impact on all California water users and that the department is in a difficult position -- it desperately wants to see the state cut its usage but also doesn't want to see farmers lose their crops.

Raley also said the Interior Department is setting up a program that will account for any surpluses farmers take, and that farmers will be expected to "pay back" the loan by reducing water demand in coming years.

Ronald Hull of the Imperial Irrigation District said the loan continues a tradition of helping farmers at the end of a dry year.

"We get three inches of rain in a normal year and, when you don't get that, you're short," Hull said. "We're not asking for more; we're just asking for the water we've always had."

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