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Officials Sign Deal to End Feud, Divide Up Water

Hoover Dam ceremony marks a historic shift of Colorado River supplies from farms to cities.

October 17, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

HOOVER DAM, Nevada — Closing decades of bitter water disputes, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Gov. Gray Davis and other officials met here Thursday to sign a historic agreement to divide up California's share of the Colorado River and allow the sale of water by Imperial Valley farms to thirsty San Diego County.

Nine years in the making -- twice as long it took to build Hoover Dam -- the complex agreement involving four Southern California water agencies is meant to put an end to political feuding, prevent shortages and serve as a national model on how water can be shifted from farms to cities.

"With this agreement, conflict on the river is stilled," Norton said. "Future generations in the Colorado River Basin, from the headwaters high in the Rockies to the arid deserts, to the coastal cities will enjoy the benefits of your success."

Officials chose the site for its symbolic value. Hoover Dam, they said, was a marvel of 20th century efforts to solve water problems through engineering, but the 21st century would require allocation agreements and sales between farms and cities.

"The philosophy of the last century was just 'move the water,' " said Norton, with the massive dam as a backdrop. "In this century we have to use the water more wisely; we have to stretch it further."

The agreement calls for two desert irrigation districts -- the Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District -- to accept limits on their river allocations.

Imperial will sell water for at least 75 years to the San Diego County Water Authority in the nation's biggest shift of water from farms to cities.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, wholesaler to local agencies serving 18 million people in six counties, will allow its aqueduct to be used to carry Imperial water to San Diego; the MWD can also buy water from Imperial.

"Hoover Dam forever changed the Colorado River and brought life into the Southwest United States," said Jack McFadden, president of the Coachella board. "This will likely be as dramatic."

Along with dividing up river water among California agencies, and settling claims by five San Diego County Indian tribes, the agreement also creates a $300-million fund meant to stop the environmental decline of the Salton Sea.

The sea, straddling Riverside and Imperial counties, serves as an agricultural sump for the fields of the Imperial Valley and is plagued by odors, increasing salinity and occasional massive die-offs of fish and birds.

Davis likened the agreement to the achievements of Gov. Pat Brown, considered the father of the State Water Project, and Los Angeles water baron William Mulholland.

At a ceremony on the visitor observation platform overlooking the dam, Davis remembered Mark Twain's dictum that whiskey is for drinking but water is for fighting.

"I'm not an expert on whiskey," said Davis, "but I definitely know that water is for fighting. What we're doing is basically ending years and years of feuding in the West."

Six other states that depend on the Colorado River have put increasing pressure on the federal government to rein in California's over-reliance on the river. With much of the West in the grip of drought, the demands have grown ever louder.

After several years of below-average precipitation, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, is at its lowest level in three decades. Even if precipitation returns to normal levels, it will take several years for the river to recover, officials say.

Under a collection of laws and agreements called the Law of the River, California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water per year. But in recent years the state has received as much as 800,000 acre-feet of surplus water above that entitlement.

The Imperial-San Diego sale is considered a key to the state's ability to live within the annual allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet. For historical reasons, Imperial is assured the lion's share of California's allocation from the river.

The Southern California agencies have agreed to stop suing and sniping at each other over allegations of wasting water. The agreement even has provisions to stop officials from badmouthing their brethren. Imperial, the biggest user of Colorado River water in seven states, agreed to drop its lawsuit against the Department of Interior; the federal government, in turn, promised not to renew its allegations that the Imperial farmers are water wasters unless "unique circumstances" arise.

In the end, each of the main parties had to compromise: San Diego will pay more for water than it expected, Imperial will sell more water than it wanted, Coachella gives up its legal advantage that gave it enormous leverage and the MWD will no longer be the sole water provider to San Diego, its largest customer.

Also, the state of California will assume responsibility, as it once was unwilling to do, for environmental damage done to the Salton Sea above a cap set on the amount the local agencies will pay.

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