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Water Officials Lash Out at MWD Over Aqueduct

Agency refuses use of its waterway to bring some of Imperial Valley's allocation of the Colorado River to arid San Diego.

August 22, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Officials of three water agencies in Southern California, joined by officials from Nevada and Arizona, on Thursday accused the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California of trying to sabotage a historic water deal in order to maintain its bureaucratic power.

The criticism of the MWD by officials from San Diego, Coachella Valley, Imperial Valley, Phoenix and Las Vegas was strong even by the standards used in water disputes.

And it provided the sharpest indication to date that the proposed deal for water-rich Imperial Valley to sell water to arid San Diego County -- a plan thought crucial by state and federal water bosses if California is to avoid shortages -- may be unraveling.

For the sale to be possible, the MWD would have to allow the water to be brought to San Diego through its Colorado Aqueduct.

Though none of the agencies was threatening to end negotiations, the philosophic gap between the MWD and the others appears to be widening.

"Water is too precious to the Southern California economy to walk away," said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.

"Although Metropolitan apparently doesn't see value in the deal, everyone else does," Stapleton said.

The strongest denunciation of the MWD, which serves 18 million people in six counties, came from Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Mulroy, in a prepared statement, accused the MWD of having "an obsession with protecting its stranglehold over California water supplies. That one rogue agency can utterly upend nearly a decade of work to establish lasting peace and reliability on the Colorado River is beyond comprehension."

MWD Vice President Adan Ortega rejected the dire predictions of the other agencies.

"The world is not going to end despite the smoke and mirrors these other parties in their desperation are resorting to," he said.

The agencies' anger comes just two days after the MWD released a report from a Caltech scientist suggesting that the Colorado River is entering a dry phase and that it may not have enough water to provide "surplus" water to the MWD beyond its legally assured allocation.

One of the inducements for the MWD to accept the Imperial-San Diego deal would be the proposed resumption of surplus allocations for up to 15 years.

Such allocations were ended in January by the federal government when the MWD and the other agencies failed to reach agreement on what would have been the largest sale of water from farms to cities in the nation.

If the Caltech analysis -- which was requested by the MWD -- is correct, the MWD has much less motivation to allow its aqueduct to be used.

If San Diego begins buying water from Imperial, its dependence on the MWD is lessened; San Diego is currently the MWD's biggest customer.

The flash point of the dispute is the Salton Sea, the tea-colored body of water that exists on agricultural runoff from Imperial Valley.

After its own suggestion on how to fund environmental projects to help "save" the sea was rejected by the other agencies, the MWD stunned the other agencies by saying it felt no need to help the sea unless the MWD could receive water from Imperial Valley in return.

That position was restated Thursday in a letter to Gov. Gray Davis by MWD President Ronald Gastelum.

"We do not agree that Metropolitan has any obligation to contribute funds to pay the mitigation costs" of the water deal, Gastelum wrote.

Lloyd Allen, president of the Imperial Irrigation District, suggested that the water deal could proceed even without the MWD's approval. "If Metropolitan wants to be left out in the cold, so be it," he said.

As a state-authorized agency, the MWD is subject to actions of the Legislature.

One remedy discussed by its rival agencies has been to ask the Legislature to force the MWD to allow its aqueduct to be used to bring some of Imperial's share of the Colorado River to San Diego.

Although the dispute centers on the competing interests of Southern California water agencies, it also involves Arizona and Nevada because of the complex and overlapping ways in which water is distributed to seven states from the Colorado River.

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