SAN DIEGO — After years of sporadic negotiations, U.S. and Mexican officials Tuesday are set to sign a major agreement aimed at improving binational cooperation over the Colorado River.
Under the five-year deal, regional water agencies in Southern California, Arizona and Nevada will purchase a total of nearly 100,000 acre-feet of water from Mexico's share of the Colorado River — enough to cover the needs of 200,000 families for a year.
In exchange, Mexico will receive $10 million to repair damage done to its irrigation canals by the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck the Mexicali Valley in 2010.
Jorge Zazueta Camacho, president of an irrigation district area near the quake's epicenter, said the repair of hundreds of miles of canals is desperately needed to bring thousands of acres of farmland back into production. Only 20% of his district's alfalfa, cotton and wheat fields currently were being cultivated, he said.
"The reconstruction effort has been very slow, and sometimes it stops for months because there's no money," Camacho said.
Beyond providing money to rebuild the Mexican infrastructure, the U.S. is promising to buy additional water from Mexico, at a quantity and price to be determined later, and allow it to flow to the delta south of the border — an area depleted in recent years by drought and increased consumption upstream.
To the dismay of Mexican fishermen and of environmentalists on both sides of the border, the river often is barely a trickle when it finishes its 1,400-mile journey to the delta and the Gulf of California.
The U.S.-Mexico agreement "is a major accomplishment for everyone who has worked to restore habitat in the delta and for the local communities who benefit," said Francisco Zamora, director of the Colorado River Delta Legacy Project for the Sonoran Institute.
Under the accord, Mexico will agree to take a lesser amount of water during times of drought and be allowed to store water in Lake Mead — on the Nevada-Arizona border — during times of surplus or when, because of infrastructure problems, it cannot use its entire annual allocation.
Officials hope the deal will lead to longer agreements between the two nations that depend on the Colorado River.
"It's a good way to open the door," said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
And, said Michael Connor, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the deal "ensures a strong partnership" on Colorado River issues.
"We share a culture, a border and resources with our neighbors in Mexico, and it's entirely appropriate that we also share solutions to the challenges we face in the Colorado River basin," Connor said.
The Metropolitan Water District will pay half of the $10 million and receive about 47,500 acre-feet of water. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas, and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District will split the remaining $5 million in cost and each receive 23,750 acre-feet.
Absent from Tuesday's signing ceremony at the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego will be representatives of the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest single user of Colorado River water. That entity has refused to participate because some of its officials see the deal as a water-grab by the Metropolitan Water District.
The deal does contain a promise by Metropolitan to negotiate with Imperial about possibly sharing some of the Mexican water. But that promise "amounts to little more than a wish list," said Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District.