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Progress in Water Talks Is Reported

Tentative agreements in the deal involving Imperial Valley and San Diego are unveiled. But some key issues remain unresolved.

August 14, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

For the first time in months, top federal and state officials reported progress Wednesday in the contentious negotiations over a proposed Southern California water deal long considered crucial to the state's ability to avoid water shortages.

Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley and former state Assemblyman Richard Katz, a member of the California Water Quality Control Board who is representing Gov. Gray Davis, called a news conference in Sacramento to unveil a 10-page agreement among agencies involved in the proposed deal between water-rich Imperial Valley and arid San Diego County.

And although several key issues remain unresolved -- any one of which could derail the deal -- the Raley-Katz announcement was an indication that progress has been made during closed-door negotiations toward narrowing the issues of money and power that have long separated the agencies.

"From a federal perspective, we believe a major milestone has been reached," Raley said.

Along with settling some of the disagreements among the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the 10-page document also was meant to ease fears of other Western states that take water from the Colorado River.

Representatives of those states have been concerned that the Imperial-San Diego deal contained "offramps" that would allow one party to scuttle the deal. For that reason, the other states had threatened to withdraw a previous agreement to allow California to receive so-called surplus water from the Colorado River for up to 15 years if the Imperial-San Diego deal were consummated.

Under the format announced by Raley and Katz, the deal would be binding for 35 years without "offramps."

The other Western states have grown increasingly dissatisfied with their behemoth neighbor taking more than its assured allocation from the river. But two years ago, after arm-twisting and cajoling by the Clinton administration, those states agreed to allow California to continue receiving the surplus water if it could cut a deal that showed that it was learning to live within its entitlement.

The Imperial-San Diego deal, which would be the largest sale of water from farms to cities in the nation, was the linchpin of that seven-state agreement.

But when the California agencies were unable to reach agreement by the Jan. 1 deadline on the proposed sale, the Bush administration immediately ended surplus water allocations to California and reduced the mammoth annual allocation to the Imperial Irrigation District. The district immediately sued the federal government and won at least a temporary restoration of its full request.

If the Imperial-San Diego deal can be rescued, the six states are willing to permit California to resume receiving surplus water, a policy known as the "soft landing."

If the deal is not completed, the alternative is to continue the cutbacks, known as the "hard landing." Raley said he has no plans to pressure the California agencies.

"We're not going to leverage California," he said. "If it chooses to have the hard landing, that's its choice. I would think the prospect of peace on the river versus 20 more years of litigation certainly ought to be an incentive."

On one of the thorniest unresolved issues -- the fate of the Salton Sea -- the Raley-Katz announcement indicated that progress has been made but that no solution has yet been reached.

The Salton Sea, which straddles Riverside and Imperial counties, survives from agricultural runoff. If Imperial sells water to San Diego, the amount of runoff will decrease, thus exacerbating the sea's problem of rising salinity. By federal law, partners in water sales are responsible for fixing any environmental damage done by the sale.

The three agencies involved in the sale apparently have reached at least tentative agreement that they should provide $193 million toward environmental projects at the sea -- although just how that money will be raised has yet to be decided.

If, as many specialists believe, the cost of restoring the Salton Sea exceeds $193 million, that cost will be borne by the state and federal governments, Katz said. "We are very committed to giving the Salton Sea every chance to survive," Katz said.

Officials of the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District said they were cautiously optimistic and pledged that their agencies would continue negotiations. Metropolitan is key to the deal because it owns the aqueduct that would bring the water to San Diego.

In making the announcement, Raley said the federal government's active participation in the negotiating process is over.

"This takes the federal government out of the blame game" if the deal falls through, said Metropolitan Vice President Adan Ortega. "At the end of the day, if we don't get a deal, we have only ourselves to blame."

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