No respect for county's role in water transfer, supervisors told

March 21, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

The Rodney Dangerfield of county boards of supervisors was told Tuesday that when it comes to its role in the transfer of water from the Imperial Irrigation District to the San Diego County Water Authority, it gets no respect.

The county Board of Supervisors was told by its outside special counsel, Tony Rossman of San Francisco, that the bottom line is the county should be shown a little more respect on the issue. Rossman said there are several steps the county can take to remain involved in the various processes despite being looked upon by the state Water Resources Control Board as a second-class citizen when it comes to the transfer of water.

Rossman said the county can still raise public trust questions such as the potential environmental and economic impacts to the county from the transfer. He said the county can raise legal questions about the transfer including that the transfer has been fundamentally changed as any water transferred will actually go to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California under the so-called 30-year exchange agreement between MWD and San Diego.


In that agreement, MWD receives the IID water and in turn, MWD would supply San Diego with water from whatever source, of like amount and quality.

Secondly, Rossman said the county, as the county of origin of much of the water in the Colorado River, likely has the authority to make a determination that the potential environmental impacts as found in the yet-to-be-released environmental study are unacceptable.

"These are open questions," Rossman said.

He said Imperial County could challenge the transfer based on legislation that requires owners of water conveyance systems, such as MWD's Colorado River Aqueduct, to transfer water as requested by outsiders unless, among other conditions, the transfer would lead to "unreasonable effects in the county of origin."

In response, Rossman said if the water is really being transferred to MWD, then the water is not an outsider's, for example, San Diego's.

Rossman also addressed fallowing. He said the term "temporary fallowing" has been extended to match the length of the IID-San Diego transfer, 75 years.

To preclude the generation of water through fallowing, Rossman said the county, as a last resort, could impose a conditional-use permit that farmers would have to obtain to not farm. He said that would be a "drastic measure," but the land-use authority held by the county is a strong tool should fallowing "get out of hand."

"We don't really have any assurances that de facto fallowing won't be used to transfer water out of the Valley with the potentially massive dislocation of agriculture," Rossman said.

Ignoring drastic actions, Rossman said the county could pursue cooperative measures but that the cooperation must be on the part of the parties involved in the transfer, including the state Water Resources Control Board and the U.S. Department of Interior.

He emphasized that the transfer terms are not complete and will not be until some time after the environmental documents are finalized and accepted by the state and federal governments. He said it was a mistake to sign the transfer agreement before the environmental study was completed.

Finally, he said the county will ultimately be the source of the environmental costs for the transfer.

Rossman's appearance was to update the board on the transfer's legal issues. The update was in the form of a public hearing and several people made comments.

Don Cox, a former IID board member and retired Brawley-area farmer, said it is not guaranteed that farmers will sign up to conserve the minimum amount required for the transfer, 130,000 acre-feet, within the allotted time after the environmental document is released.

Cox said IID is spending as much as $20,000 a day, more than $7 million annually, on transfer-related issues, at the expense of farmers. He said farmers are more likely to go along with the transfer if there is money for conservation up front.

"People are concerned it's costing too much," he said, adding that under the agreement there is no minimum price.

Under the agreement, the price is linked to MWD's water rates. The price would be the cost of MWD's full water rate (the untreated rate plus other charges, $400 an acre-foot at the time), minus the cost for San Diego to move conserved Valley water through MWD's aqueduct ($68.50 an acre-foot at the time), minus a discount that starts at 25 percent and decreases over 17 years to 5 percent. That price was estimated at $249 an acre-foot. It is now estimated in the range of $220 per acre-foot.

The price is expected to be somewhat lower as next year MWD's water rates are decreasing, and San Diego has agreed to pay a higher rate for moving the water through MWD's system.

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