Earlier Eckhardt had said such talks would start this month.
Eckhardt said if the negotiations move a timely manner, a public draft of the environmental documents for the water transfer could be ready for release in June.
He said he hopes by October a record of decision on those environmental documents will be ready. That record of decision must be signed before water can start to move to San Diego.
Once that record of decision is signed, IID would have 120 days to sign up farmers to take part in the water-conservation program, a key part of the Imperial Valley's effort to come up with water for the transfer.
Still, Eckhardt said meeting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials is the most immediate critical step. Those talks will lead to the drafting of the habitat conservation plan, which will outline the mitigation actions required to protect the environment from the effects of the transfer.
IID has set a cap of $15 million it is willing to pay for such mitigations. The concern is the price tag could prove much higher than that.
Eckhardt said the pivotal part of the talks will involve the Salton Sea and the effect the transfer and any conservation methods will have on it.
At issue is whether conservation will reduce the flow of water into the sea, thus reducing the level of the sea and increasing the salinity. Salinity has been blamed, in part for the troubled health of the sea, which some researchers have called a dying body of water.
IID officials say they still hope to move forward with the water transfer in 2002.
Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.