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Imperial Water Deal Completed

Landmark pact to sell water to San Diego is OKd 3-2 over the objections of farmers who fear impact.

October 03, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

El CENTRO, Calif. — After seven years of negotiations and political wrangling, the Imperial Irrigation District board on Thursday approved the largest sale of water from farms to cities in the nation -- a move seen as vital if coastal Southern California is to avoid shortages.

But the 3-2 vote to approve the 75-year agreement to sell water to San Diego was made over the strenuous objections of some farmers, who fear that the sale could devastate Imperial Valley's farm economy in order to provide water for cities unable to control growth.

For the first time, Imperial Valley farmers will have to accept limits on how much water they can draw from the Colorado River.

Board member Andy Horne, who voted against the plan, said it violates the legacy provided by Imperial Valley pioneers who staked claim to the river a century ago and turned a hostile desert into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

Still, state and federal officials have put increasing pressure on Imperial to approve the water sale or face mandatory cutbacks for which the district and its farmers will receive no money, a strategy derided by some farmers as "sell it or lose it."

Imperial director Bruce Kuhn, who opposed a similar deal in December but switched sides and provided the swing vote, said he had received calls in recent days from officials in Washington and Sacramento, urging him to vote for the plan.

"I wouldn't wish this kind of pressure on anyone," Kuhn said. "I've lost friends and business associates over this ....But I had to do what was best for the valley."

Some farmers and others argued that the deal could devastate the Imperial Valley by forcing farmers, in the first 15 years of the agreement, to fallow approximately 25,000 acres of farmland -- about 5% of the valley's acreage -- so that water can be sold to the San Diego County Water Authority.

"What do you tell a person who has lost his job and his home and has to leave the valley because of the fallowing," said board member Stella Mendoza, who voted "hell no" during a roll call.

At its height, the agreement calls for the sale of 277,000 acre feet of water a year, enough for the needs of 2 million people.

Even board members and others who supported the deal were largely unenthusiastic and viewed it not as a boon to the valley, but as preferable to continued pressure from Sacramento and Washington and a court fight with the Department of the Interior.

"If we kill this deal, all the forces of evil are going to come down on us," said farmer and former Imperial board member Don Cox.

The plan has already been approved by the San Diego board, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Coachella Valley Water District board. MWD's Colorado Aqueduct would be used to bring a portion of Imperial's allocation from the Colorado River to San Diego.

"We're glad to have reached this milestone," said MWD Vice President Adan Ortega.

For San Diego, the agreement is the realization of a 50-year dream of breaking its nearly total dependence on MWD for its water.

MWD and Coachella will also receive additional water.

Although the plan, in its first stage, calls for water to be saved by letting fields remain dry, the long-range strategy will be for farmers to be paid to install conservation devices on their farms to allow them to continue to grow crops by using less water. But farmers are concerned that the plan will prove to be a money-loser.

"I think we'll be lucky if the money is sufficient to pay for the conservation," said farmer John Benson, the mayor of Brawley.

One issue yet to be resolved is what will happen to businesses likely to suffer economically if farmland is pulled from cultivation.

With an annual value of $1.2 billion, agriculture is the dominant economic factor in a valley with 140,000 people and 500,000 acres of farmland.

"I urge this board not to put the final nail in this valley's coffin," said local radio station owner Gene Brister.

The terms of the deal have changed considerably since the first tentative discussion between Imperial and San Diego in 1995.

Those changes have added to the opposition.

At first, the idea of fallowing was anathema to the Imperial District because of fear that it would undercut the county's tax base, public services and agriculture-related businesses.

Now, fallowing, at least in the first years of the deal, is seen as inevitable.

Also, though the plan was once seen as voluntary, farmers now realize that their individual allotments could be cut, even if they oppose the sale.

The complexity of the four-way deal has also flummoxed some farmers trying to determine how their livelihoods will be affected.

For example, each aspect of the deal is tied to a different cost/inflationary index because of disagreements among the parties.

"I don't know if there's ever been a water transfer as complicated," Cox said. "It's almost impossible to comprehend it."

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