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Water Board Seeks Deal to Revive Talks

MWD proposes a users' surcharge in lieu of Davis' plan to use money from state bond issue.

June 25, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

In an effort to get stalled negotiations over a major water deal moving again, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California sent a complex proposal to Gov. Gray Davis on Tuesday on how to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental costs.

The proposal comes at a time when the agency is under criticism from Davis' top water negotiator and from officials in water districts in San Diego and Imperial Valley for allegedly trying to block a much-delayed pact between the San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District.

Part of the criticism centers on objections by the water district's governing board to the governor's idea of using $200 million from a state water bond issue to make the San Diego-Imperial agreement a reality.

On Tuesday, the water district board forwarded an alternative proposal to the governor. The proposal would take legislative action to create an agency to collect a surcharge on water users who benefit from the water deal.

"We're asking for a public discussion," said Ronald Gastelum, president and chief executive of the water district, which serves 18 million people in six counties. "We'll see where the chips fall."

San Diego is the water district's largest customer. If its deal to buy Colorado River water from Imperial Valley comes to fruition, San Diego would get a measure of the water independence that has been on its political wish list for more than 50 years.

"We appreciate that [the district] shares the governor's desire to meet California's long-term water needs," said Davis spokesman Gabriel Sanchez. "We're in the process of reviewing this proposal."

A week ago, after several days of testy exchanges between various officials, Davis summoned parties from the Metropolitan Water District, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District and the San Diego County Water Authority to a meeting in Sacramento in hopes of breaking the logjam.

At that meeting, MWD officials explained that their governing board believes it is improper to use the bond issue money for the San Diego-Imperial deal because voters were not told in advance that the money would be used in that fashion.

Instead, the board's executive committee, working with senior staff members, has devised an alternative funding proposal that in effect shifts the cost from state taxpayers to the water agencies that will benefit from the transfer: the Metropolitan Water District, San Diego, Coachella and Imperial.

Rather than using the bond money, the proposal would add a $6 per acre-foot surcharge on all Colorado River water used in California. The Imperial Irrigation District uses about 3 million acre-feet a year, about 75% of the state's share.

An initial water district estimate is that the surcharge could raise more than $800 million over the 35 years of the proposed contract between San Diego and Imperial.

The funding proposal, however, could become moot depending on the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the Imperial Irrigation District against the federal government. The district is fighting to block the Bush administration from reducing its mammoth allocation from the Colorado River.

The federal judge hearing the case has ordered a study to determine whether Imperial Valley farmers are wasting water.

If Imperial loses its lawsuit, the district could end up losing water without being compensated.

Imperial Valley officials and farmers have already vowed to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court if the study concludes that the farmers have wasted water and the district's allocation should be cut.

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