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New Tactics Threaten Water Deal

Insistence that the U.S. won't try to cut the Imperial Valley's share of the Colorado River could kill the fragile accord, officials say.

September 12, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Even as bills designed to make possible a giant sale of water from Imperial Valley to San Diego County were passed Thursday by the state Senate, the proposed sale ran into obstacles that could sink it.

The sale, the largest transfer of water from farms to cities in the nation, is thought by state and federal officials to be crucial to the state's ability to avoid shortages. But negotiations spread over eight years have been contentious and fraught with setbacks as officials struggled with issues of water, money and political power.

Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley, the Bush administration's top official on western water issues, told reporters that the deal is threatened by a last-minute change in negotiating strategy by the Imperial Irrigation District, the public agency that controls the bulk of California's share of the Colorado River.

The obstacle, Raley said, is the district's demand for assurances that the federal government will never again try to reduce its allocation from the Colorado River if the district agrees to sell water to the San Diego County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Through an arcane provision in federal law known as the "beneficial use" rule, the government moved earlier this year to cut Imperial's share of the river by about 10% by asserting that farmers were wasting water. The move prompted the district to file a federal lawsuit amid angry vows to fight the issue to the Supreme Court.

During negotiations this summer, Imperial officials agreed to something less than an ironclad assurance that the federal government would not attempt to use the rule in the future, Raley said. Now the district has reneged on that agreement, he added.

"We were almost giddy with anticipation but now we have to go back to Square 1 on the 'beneficial use' issues that were resolved previously by their negotiators," he said.

In El Centro, members of the district's governing board were equally insistent that Raley's characterization of their negotiating position was incorrect.

"Unless we have that assurance, we're not going to go through with this deal," said board member Stella Mendoza. "They're talking about our way of life, our livelihood."

Board member Bruce Kuhn said that Raley "knew we had issues -- maybe he chose to ignore them." Still, Kuhn said he believed the "beneficial use" issue could be resolved through additional negotiations.

"I do not believe for one second that these issues should be the death knell" of the sale of water, Kuhn said. "I believe if dialogue is open," Raley would understand "we're not asking for the impossible." Still, Raley was not alone in expressing surprise at the Imperial Irrigation District actions.

"We're surprised as anyone," said Metropolitan Water District General Counsel Jeff Kightlinger. "We thought these issues were buttoned up."

The bills passed Thursday require Imperial, San Diego, MWD and the Coachella Water District to reach agreement by Oct. 12 or the state will withdraw its support.

While the dispute over the "beneficial use" issue was the darkest cloud to appear over the proposed Imperial-San Diego sale, concerns were also expressed Thursday by a coalition of environmental groups and by a group of farmers at odds with the Imperial Irrigation District.

The environmentalists are worried that the bills passed by the Senate will harm the Salton Sea, which survives on agricultural runoff from Imperial Valley. And a spokesman for the group suggested that the expedited process is meant to help Gov. Gray Davis defeat the recall movement by allowing him to boast that he has solved California's water problems.

"This deal undermines due process and important conservation laws, and just throws money at a complex problem," said David Hogan of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing the federal government on charges of neglecting the sea. "Is this a deal to protect the Salton Sea or a maneuver to keep Gov. Davis in office?"

The center was not among those groups invited by lawmakers and water officials to be part of the negotiating process on the water deal and its effect on the Salton Sea.

Also on Thursday, a farmers group in Imperial Valley moved ahead with litigation aimed at breaking up the authority of the Imperial Irrigation District over the valley's water rights. The group asserts that the district is pushing the water deal without consulting the majority of farmers.

"We started this a year ago and we're probably more in the dark, more alienated from the district, than ever," said farmer Michael Morgan.

The comments from Raley, the environmentalists and Morgan's group contrasted with the celebratory tone of statements by legislators who sponsored legislation meant to help the water deal become a reality.

The Davis administration has been key to negotiations among legislators and officials of the feuding water agencies. Davis issued a statement late Thursday saying the legislation "ends decades of confrontation and replaces it with unprecedented cooperation."

One bill would impose fees on water sales estimated to raise at least $250 million over the next 15 years to pay for restoration of the Salton Sea.

Another would cap at $133 million the amount of money the water agencies involved in the deal would have to pay to minimize the environmental harm to the Imperial Valley caused by reduced agricultural runoff.

The third bill, by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) would not penalize the water districts for the incidental killing of several species such as the desert pupfish and brown pelican.

Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report

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