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Southland Share of Water to Be Cut as Deal Collapses

Farmers, MWD fail to reach accord that would allow Colorado River allotments to continue.

January 01, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

EL CENTRO, Calif. — Southern California cities and suburbs will lose a major portion of the water supply they have relied on for the last two decades as an immediate consequence of a breakdown in New Year's Eve negotiations over a deal to shift water from farms to urban areas.

A top Bush administration official said Tuesday night that water distribution from the Colorado River will be reduced after four water agencies failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to agree on a plan for Imperial Valley farmers to sell water to San Diego County.

Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley said the administration has no choice but to reduce water to the mammoth Imperial Irrigation District by 7% and to suspend shipments of so-called surplus water from the Colorado River to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves Los Angeles and five surrounding counties.

The cutback will deprive the MWD of about 50% of its Colorado River allocation, or about 25% of its total supply from all sources. MWD provides water to local agencies, many of which also have their own local supplies.

"We regret doing this, but we've been consistent for 15 months about enforcing the deadline," Raley said. "We wish there wasn't this kind of fighting and we were on the same path."

Though urban and suburban residents will not feel the impact of the reduction immediately, the end of surplus shipments greatly complicates the state's water future and may require greater public investment in water conservation projects and even lifestyle changes. "We have reached the era of limits," said Raley, the administration's point man on Western water issues.

Metropolitan Water District officials said they may begin shutting down some pumps that draw water from the Colorado River and begin switching to reservoirs and aquifers as early as next week.

The New Year's deadline was set two years ago as a kind of cease-fire agreement between California and the other six states that also draw water from the Colorado. The other states, beset by drought, have demanded that the federal government end the practice of allowing California to take more than its legal allotment from the river.

The proposed transfer of water from the Imperial Valley, which would require some valley farmland to be taken out of cultivation, is seen as a major step in reducing California's excessive dependence on the Colorado.

Early Tuesday evening, any hope of an eleventh-hour settlement was lost when neighboring water agencies turned down a plea from Imperial Valley for continued negotiations over the proposed water transfer to San Diego County. The parties had until midnight Tuesday to reach a deal, but officials of MWD and the Coachella Valley Water District said the Imperial Irrigation District had added too many complex, costly conditions at the last minute.

For Imperial Valley farmers, it is the first time the federal government has challenged their historic right to the lion's share of California's entitlement to the Colorado River.

And for MWD, which serves 17 million people in six counties, it means the loss of 600,000 to 800,000 acre-feet of surplus water a year -- enough for 6 million people. An acre-foot is enough water to meet the annual needs of two families.

The collapse of the Imperial-San Diego deal leaves California with the "cold turkey" prospect of living within its legal entitlement of 4.4 million acre-feet without any additional surplus water.

The federal government and the six other Western states had been willing to give California another 15 years of surplus water, but only if the water transfer was approved by midnight.

Metropolitan officials said there is enough water in reservoirs and aquifers to offset the loss of surplus water for at least two more years.

For the longer term, the district has accelerated plans for other water deals, desalination plants, conservation projects and water reclamation projects. Actress Rene Russo is leading a drive to persuade property owners to plant only native plants that require little watering.

Metropolitan, Imperial, the Coachella Valley Water District and the San Diego County Water Authority were under a deadline to either approve a historic transfer of water from farms to cities or suffer the cuts.

Despite -- or possibly because of -- a flurry of last-minute negotiations, the water agencies were unable to agree on a plan to reduce California's overreliance on the Colorado River.

While the Imperial board voted 3 to 2 to accept a water sales plan, Metropolitan executives said the financial provisions added by Imperial were unacceptable.

"The last time an eleventh-hour proposal was hastily approved, circumstances led to an energy crisis," said Ronald Gastelum, MWD president and chief executive officer. "This will not be the case with water."

Coachella officials said the Imperial-approved contract was too complex for them to adequately study before the deadline.

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