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Keep Water Talks Going

March 08, 2003

Snow blankets the drought-plagued Colorado Rockies. That's good news for Southern Californians. When the powder melts in the spring, tiny trickles will mingle to join the Colorado River. For more than half a century, the Metropolitan Water District has tapped the flow in the lower Colorado via its 242-mile-long aqueduct, eventually distributing the supply -- enough to serve 2.4 million households -- throughout Southern California.

This year, however, the Department of the Interior has cut back the water district's 1.2-million-acre-foot take of the river by about one-third because it and fellow agencies failed to adopt a plan to wean the state from using more than its legal share of the Colorado River, 4.4 million acre-feet a year.

The MWD, the San Diego County Water Authority, the Imperial Irrigation District and two other agencies negotiated for five years on a complex agreement that would achieve those cutbacks, demanded by the other Colorado River Basin states, which now need their full shares.

The plan, to which the agencies gave semifinal agreement in October, involved the transfer to San Diego of 200,000 acre-feet a year from the Imperial Valley farms that soak up the bulk of the supply. This would meet San Diego's growth needs and let Imperial farmers escape federal or state sanctions for wasting water. Money from San Diego would finance sophisticated irrigation systems on the farms. The transfer of the saved water would be made through the aqueduct.

But now the MWD threatens to back out of the deal, a move that could kill the entire effort and possibly put the region at risk of water shortages despite the district's claims that it can meet demands for 20 years without the surplus Colorado water. One fear is that the district will turn to Northern California for more water, possibly reigniting old north-south water wars.

The Interior Department imposed the cut after a Dec. 31 deadline. Under standard water rights conventions, the MWD should have absorbed the entire reduction, 620,000 acre-feet. Interior officials stunned the state by trimming MWD's take by only 415,000 acre-feet and forcing Imperial farmers to absorb a reduction of a little more than 200,000 acre-feet. Imperial is suing and some water lawyers think it has a strong case.

Even though MWD authorities happily learned they would not have to suffer the full cut, the agency began raising new objections to the accord. Still, talks continued under Gov. Gray Davis. In a six-page letter to the state last week, the MWD said the deal's costs now exceeded its benefits, particularly with lower river flows. The district questioned whether the plan "continues to be in the public interest." In fact, the accord is vital to California and the orderly management of its limited water supplies. And it would benefit the MWD as well.

Negotiations are scheduled to continue, but a new deadline looms. On March 18, a federal court may rule on Imperial's lawsuit. That could be the breaking point for the agreement. California needs the district to remain at the table, working for a final accord to keep the Colorado snowmelt coming.

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