State official offers incentive for fallowing

December 14, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

IMPERIAL — A state water quality official offered Imperial Valley farmers an incentive to fallow farmland and send some of the unused water to help restore the Salton Sea.

Phil Gruenberg, executive officer for the state Colorado River Basin Regional Water Quality Control Board, told the farmers that his agency would "relax somewhat" its efforts in the area of total maximum daily loads.

TMDLs are water quality standards. One TMDL has been developed and formally adopted by the regional board's board of directors and Valley farmers are facing another dozen.

Gruenberg spoke before the monthly meeting of the Imperial Irrigation District's water conservation advisory board Thursday. He said the regional board cannot relax the federally mandated TMDL standards but it does control enforcement efforts.


"I think the farmers are going to see some relief if the sea is restored and maintained," he said.

Gruenberg said the only water sustaining the sea is farm runoff, and that he does not want to do something that would encourage farmers to simply cut off their runoff and strangle the sea as a result of TMDLs.

"It's a situation that isn't perfect, but it has worked," he said of the runoff sustaining the sea.

In Gruenberg's opinion, the only way to save the sea is by fallowing about 70,000 acres and using the unused water for the IID/San Diego County Water Authority transfer and for the sea.

"I don't see any way around it if the sea is to be saved," he said.

The average per acre use of water in the Imperial Valley is about 5.6 acre-feet. Permanently idling 70,000 acres amounts to about 392,000 acre-feet of water, more than enough for both purposes.

Gruenberg suggested 20,000 acres would be sufficient for the sea. He said the sea's restoration must be locked in to the IID/San Diego transfer, as well as the quantification settlement and the California Colorado River Plan, under which the state is expected to reduce its draw from the river from 5.2 million acre-feet yearly to 4.4 million.

Gruenberg suggested the only way to accomplish the land retirement program would be for IID to buy up marginal land from willing sellers, use the resulting water for the transfer and the sea, and use the revenues from the transfer for local economic development.

"If there aren't any willing farmers then this isn't going to fly," he said, adding that he's heard a reasonable price for such land is about $1,000 an acre, but that an inflated price might be offered to encourage sellers.

Despite his proposal, Gruenberg said his feeling is there is no support in the Imperial Valley to save the sea or fallow.

The decision, he said, is up to the Imperial Valley. If the sea is not saved, however, he said there would likely be more water transfers out of the Valley, and that the state might reason that there is no need for runoff to go toward the sea, and the sea's tributaries should be dried up.

However, if the sea were to be saved, Gruenberg said there would be every reason to keep more water in the Valley and not allow further transfers.

Gruenberg did point out a point of tension between the regional board and its parent agency. He said the regional board, in its Colorado River basin plan, acknowledges the reasonable and beneficial use of farm runoff to sustain the sea, while the state Water Resources Control Board says the water is wasted.

"The flow, even polluted, gives us continuation," he said.

Finally, Gruenberg was asked to comment on Wednesday's editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune. The editorial says it is ridiculous to burden San Diego and Los Angeles — the urban recipients of the Imperial Valley's transferred water — with developing ideas to restore the sea.

Gruenberg said the comment is typical of someone who just wants the water.

>>Staff Writer Rudy Yniguez can be reached at 337-3440.

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