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Legislation Seeks End to Water War

Governor's approval advances efforts to promote transfers from farms to parched cities.

September 30, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Declaring that "peace has broken out along the Colorado River," Gov. Gray Davis signed three bills Monday meant to stop the feuding among local water agencies and pave the way for the nation's largest transfer of water from farms to cities.

The bills were passed in the final days of the legislative session in an atmosphere that suggested that seven years of negotiations would be on the verge of failure unless the state stepped in with money, a softening of environmental restrictions and a plan to balance the competing interests of different water districts.

"I am thrilled to finally see the realization of these goals after years of hard work by all the parties involved," Davis said.

But Davis' optimism may prove to be premature.

The Imperial Irrigation District has yet to approve the deal to sell water to the San Diego County Water Authority. A litigious environmental group is threatening to sue over what it sees as the state's puny effort to save the Salton Sea.

And Mexico is unhappy with a part of the California water plan that would deplete the aquifer that supports farms in the Mexicali Valley.

Still, many water observers agree that the bills represent a significant step toward a long-range plan for dividing up the state's allocation from the Colorado River.

Andrew Roth, who teaches a course on Western water at Pomona College, said the bills, while incremental, set the stage for a historic agreement about sharing water. "There's never been anything quite like this," he said.

The bills are meant to complement a tentative water-sale agreement reached by the Imperial Irrigation District, the San Diego County Water Authority, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Former Assemblyman Richard Katz, the governor's top water advisor, served as a mediator for the four parties. Playing a similar role for the Bush administration was Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley.

Although widely divergent in their opinions on other issues, officials in Sacramento and Washington agree that the key to California's water future rests in reducing its dependence on the Colorado River and encouraging sales from water-rich farm areas to thirsty cities.

The thirstiest of those cities is San Diego, which has virtually no groundwater and has long chafed at its dependence on the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District.

Last week, the San Diego board approved a 75-year agreement to buy water from the Imperial Valley. That deal, however, has not yet been ratified by the Imperial board. In December the board rejected a similar agreement in a 2-3 vote.

The bills Davis signed had been sponsored by state Sens. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego), Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) and Michael Machado (D-Linden).

Each of the three bills has provisions meant to solve the political and environmental problems posed by the Salton Sea, the smelly, discolored body of water that exists because of agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley. The sea's future became a sticking point in negotiations because of state and federal laws that require partners in a water deal to mitigate any environmental damage done, in this case, by reducing the runoff.

The Kuehl bill reduces environmental protection for so-called fully protected species in the sea. The Machado bill provides for a joint-powers agency to oversee mitigation efforts in the sea, and Ducheny's bill ratifies an agreement meant to provide an estimated $300 million for restoration projects.

Environmental groups involved in the negotiations that led to the agreement of the four water agencies called the bills a step toward saving the sea, which is a habitat for 400 species of birds. Among them are the Yuma clapper rail, the snowy plover and the brown pelican.

"These bills put the state squarely on the path of restoring the Salton Sea," said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife.

But the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which is already suing the federal government over the sea, called the measures inadequate.

Part of the group's criticism is based on the presumption behind the bills that the sea will have to shrink if it is to be restored to even a semblance of its once pristine state.

As part of the water sale -- which has been approved by San Diego and is pending before the Imperial board -- San Diego agrees to pay to line the All-American Canal in Imperial Valley to prevent seepage. The canal is used to carry Colorado River water to the valley's 500,000 acres of farmland.

Lining the canal would save water that could then be purchased by San Diego. But the seepage that is seen as wasteful north of the U.S.-Mexico border is seen as essential to the farms south of the border.

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