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Bush's choice of Gale Norton sits well with IID officials

U.S. SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR:

January 03, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

With key water agreements for the Imperial Valley and the state far from complete, Imperial Irrigation District officials say U.S. Department of Interior Secretary-designate Gale Norton could play a critical role.

Norton, chosen by President-elect George W. Bush, is a former Colorado attorney general.

IID officials said that Norton is from Colorado — one of seven Colorado River basin states involved in water talks to settle longstanding river-use issues — will help her as she takes on her new task. The other river basin states are California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming.

The talks between the states, which have been brokered by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, are to establish the California Colorado River Use Plan, in which California would cut its use of river water to 4.4 million acre-feet per year.

IID directors have credited Babbitt for bringing the states together. They said while Babbitt had been critical of IID, in his last speech to the basin states he praised IID for its efforts to solve water disputes.

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But, IID officials say, there is much work to be done before the river-use plan comes to fruition, and that is where Norton will play a role.

There is a link between the river-use plan and other water agreements IID is involved in; namely the deal to transfer 200,000 acre-feet per year to the San Diego County Water Authority.

Another related agreement is the water quantification settlement between IID, the Metropolitan Water Department of Southern California and the Coachella Valley Water Authority. That agreement is meant to establish peace between the agencies for 75 years.

The link between the issues stems from both the water transfer and the quantification being aspects of the river-use plan.

IID officials said it will be up to Norton to continue the work started by Babbitt.

One key concern IID officials are dealing with is negotiations expected to start soon with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the types of environmental mitigation that agency would require as a result of the San Diego transfer.

Officials say if the mitigations are too costly, it could kill the transfer.

"U.S. Fish and Wildlife is going to be the determining factor of whether this goes through," said IID Director Bruce Kuhn. "This will be a maker or breaker."

Kuhn said Norton could have an effect on the water transfer and in dealing with U.S. Fish and Wildlife because that agency is under the Department of Interior.

"If one does not think she is in a critical position, one is fooling themself," Kuhn said. "She holds the key."

IID Board President Rudy Maldonado, who will relinquish those duties to Director Andy Horne at the next board meeting, said he is pleased to see Norton as the interior secretary designate.

"I think for all of us we should thank our lucky stars that we got somebody that knows about the Colorado River," Maldonado said, adding it is important the individual in that position understands the "history and dynamics" of the river.

Horne said it is good to see the interior secretary slot will continue to be filled by a person from the West. Babbitt was from Arizona, which IID officials said gave him some understanding of river issues.

"I would think someone from the West would be sympathetic to the West," Horne said.

According to The Associated Press, Norton is a protégé of James Watt, interior secretary during the Ronald Reagan presidency.

Brad Luckey, IID executive director, said Norton worked for the Mountain State's Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank headed by Watt, known for his pro-development views.

Conservation groups oppose Norton's nomination, according to AP reports, because of her support for making federal lands more accessible to oil, mining and ranching interests, and her support for oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Sierra Club is one environmental group that has taken a strong stance against Norton in the Interior position.

Norton, 46, was elected attorney general of Colorado in 1990 and was re-elected in 1994.

During Reagan's presidency she was an associate solicitor for the Department of Interior and an assistant to the deputy secretary of agriculture.

Luckey said if Norton had been serving as interior secretary there would not have been a reduction in off-road vehicle access to sections of the Imperial Valley Sand Dunes, as occurred last year as a result of a settlement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and environmental groups.

Luckey said Norton, based on her record, would be the type of interior secretary who would allow local people affected by decisions "to be part of the decision-making."

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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