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Water Peace or Water War

September 26, 2003

After seven years of negotiations, tentative pacts, broken deals, bitter denunciations and a federal water cutback, four giant Southern California water agencies finally have a plan that can lead to peace on the Colorado River, protect the Salton Sea and give San Diego a measure of water independence.

The California and federal governments support the agreement. So do the other six Colorado River Basin states. The Legislature has passed the implementing bills with rare unanimity and dispatch, and Gov. Gray Davis has promised to sign them.

All that remains is formal approval by the water district boards: the Imperial Irrigation District, a giant farming area in Imperial County; the San Diego County Water Authority, the wholesaler to districts throughout its county; the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, wholesaler to six area counties; and the Coachella Valley Water District, serving Riverside County farms and cities. They should seal the deal quickly.

The plan allows California to continue to take surplus water from the Colorado River, when it is available, for the next 12 years. This would enable the state to gradually wean itself from the water it has been taking in excess of its legal entitlement, 4.4 million acre-feet a year. One acre-foot provides the annual needs of two households.

Finally settled is how California's Colorado River allotment would be divided among Imperial, Coachella and Metropolitan. This has been an unsettled and disrupting issue since the 1930s. Metropolitan would gain access to some Imperial water, thus reducing its need to seek additional supplies from Northern California.

San Diego would receive up to 200,000 acre-feet a year from Imperial in the largest farm-to-city water trade ever. Currently, San Diego is all but totally reliant on Metropolitan. In a severe drought, San Diego's portion could be cut back to preserve supplies for other, more senior Metropolitan customers.

The new plan ingeniously provides environmental protection for the Salton Sea, which relies on Imperial Valley irrigation runoff to prevent a fatal buildup of salt. The cost of Salton Sea restoration, to both the state and the agencies, killed an earlier agreement. The new plan provides for Imperial to sell an additional block of conserved farm water to the state, which would then resell the water at a profit to Metropolitan. The estimated $300 million would go to the Salton Sea rescue program.

Davis and his chief negotiator, Richard Katz, should get credit for insisting for months that talks continue until agreement was reached. The four agencies have agreed to act by Oct. 12. Metropolitan ratified the pact Tuesday. The only question mark is Imperial, set to vote on the plan Oct. 7.

This deal is as good as it's going to get for all the parties and for the state as a whole. With it comes water peace. Without it, endless water war -- in the courts and elsewhere.

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