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Officials celebrate project to cut water loss on All-American Canal

After decades of planning and more recent legal battles, a concrete lining will prevent seepage along 23 miles in the Imperial Valley.

May 02, 2009|Tony Perry

GORDON'S WELL, CALIF. — Running through an obscure strip of isolated Imperial County, the All-American Canal rarely gets the attention of the other ditches that have shaped Southern California.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brings water from the Owens Valley; the Colorado River Aqueduct, which supplies coastal Southern California; and the California Aqueduct, which brings water from Northern California, are near major population areas.

The All-American Canal brings copious amounts of Colorado River water to turn 500,000 acres of desert into some of the most productive farmland in the world.

As California struggles with drought, the 82-mile channel could be key. So on Thursday, water officials gathered at the canal to celebrate what they called a rare example of cooperation in the often contentious arena of water politics.

"This event is a big deal," said Karl Wirkus, deputy commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, whose motto is "Managing Water in the West."

At a patch of desert 35 miles east of El Centro and barely 50 yards north of the metal fence that separates the United States and Mexico, officials of several sometimes warring water agencies came together to celebrate the nearly completed project to line 23 miles with concrete to prevent seepage. The section was considered the leakiest part of the earthen canal.

The project is part of an agreement under which the Imperial Irrigation District, the canal's operator, grudgingly agreed to sell some of its mammoth share of the Colorado River to water-deprived San Diego County. The cost of the $300-million project was split between the state government and the San Diego County Water Authority.

Lester A. Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, praised more than 300 officials and others at the ceremony for overcoming numerous political, legal and financial problems when much of state government seems paralyzed. He joked that he was carrying a message from the governor: "Congratulations on finally getting something done in this state."

Lining the canal is seen as a major step toward Southern California learning to live within a "water budget" instead of looking to the Colorado River or Northern California for more water.

"The era of limits on the Colorado River imposes new expectations -- and responsibilities -- on all water users," said Brian Brady, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District.

But less seepage from the canal will mean less water for the farmers of the Mexicali Valley, where the aquifer has been replenished for decades by the leaking water.

Lining the earthen canal is expected to save 67,700 acre-feet of water a year.

The water sales agreement between Imperial and San Diego may also mean less fresh water for the Salton Sea, which straddles Imperial and Riverside counties. Less water could mean a smaller, smellier sea, and could possibly lead to dust storms.

"In water projects, there are collateral benefits and collateral damages," said Steve Erie, water policy expert and professor of political science at UC San Diego.

Many of the Imperial Valley's farmers have never liked the water sale agreement. One group sued to block the lining, delaying construction for three years before losing. The Mexican government also sued unsuccessfully to protect Mexicali farmers.

Completed in 1942, the All-American Canal replaced a canal that traveled, in part, through Mexico. It is the longest irrigation canal in the world, according to NASA scientists who have studied satellite pictures. It captures water rushing south toward Mexico and, because much of the Imperial Valley is below sea level, the canal redirects the water north largely through the force of gravity.

The late Imperial Valley farmer-poet Richard Mealey, praising the valley's pioneers, wrote: "They built the mighty All-American, a wonder in its day / A canal that ran a river a hundred miles the other way."

By paying for the lining of the All-American Canal, the San Diego County Water Authority is being allowed to buy a share of the Imperial Irrigation District's allocation from the Colorado River; the district has rights to 70% of the state's portion of the river. Also, several bands of Indians in northern San Diego County will receive additional water to settle years of litigation over water rights.

The lining of the canal had been a dream of water officials for so long that Thursday's ceremony began with a tribute to those who died before the project was finished. Planning began in the early 1980s.

"Man, look at that: Isn't that a beautiful sight? A lined canal," Robert Johnson, former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, told the gathering.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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