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MWD Approves Plan to Reallocate Water From Colorado River

September 24, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

After seven years of negotiations and periodic acrimony, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California on Tuesday approved a plan to divide the region's share of the Colorado River among feuding water agencies and transfer water from farms to cities.

"To reach this point has been a long and difficult road," said Metropolitan board Chairman John V. Foley. The board's unanimous approval of the deal came at a meeting in Los Angeles.

State and federal officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations have long insisted the plan is necessary if the state is to avoid water shortages. But issues of money, control and environmental protection have been complex and contentious.

The deal has yet to be approved by the other three agencies: the Coachella Valley Water District, the San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District. All three have board meetings scheduled as they attempt to meet an Oct. 12 deadline set by legislation approved two weeks ago.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Colorado River water -- An article in the California section on Wednesday about the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's decision on dividing Colorado River water incorrectly stated that the deal was adopted unanimously. The MWD vote was 26 to 1. Board member Betty Harris, representing Beverly Hills, voted no.

Of the three water agencies, approval by the Imperial district appears most problematic.

The district, which controls water rights in the farm-rich Imperial Valley, has been locked in a dispute with the Department of the Interior over whether farmers there are wasting water.

In exchange for dropping a federal lawsuit against the department, and signing the deal with Metropolitan, San Diego and Coachella, the Imperial board wants assurances that the federal government will never again invoke the "beneficial use" clause in regulations involving the Colorado River.

Using that clause, the Interior Department reduced Imperial's allocation of the Colorado River by 10% this year when the district refused to sign a deal to sell water to San Diego. In a letter late last week, Imperial officials said that refusal by Interior Secretary Gale Norton to provide assurance that there would not be additional "beneficial use" rulings could be a deal-breaker.

But at a meeting Tuesday night in El Centro, Imperial district lawyers said a negotiating session in Las Vegas on Monday put the district and the Interior Department close to a compromise on the issue.

Under the deal approved by Metropolitan, Imperial would sell water to San Diego, Metropolitan's largest customer. Imperial would also sell water to the state government which, in turn, would sell it to Metropolitan.

Metropolitan is key to the deal because of its ownership of the Colorado Aqueduct. Without use of that aqueduct, Imperial would have no way to get part of its share of Colorado River water to San Diego.

Negotiations between the parties have been marked by accusations that Metropolitan was stalling because it did not want to see its biggest customer get a second source of water. Virtually devoid of groundwater, San Diego buys nearly 90% of its water from Metropolitan and for half a century San Diego officials have wanted to find a second source as insurance against Metropolitan reducing its sale to the city during a drought.

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