Reader Writes by Larry Bratton: de-fanging the F-word

March 18, 2002

If you're like me and you've been trying to keep track of the water transfer process in the Imperial Valley, which has been going on for so many years now that it has frankly bludgeoned most of the public into a kind of chronic fatigue syndrome, you're probably thinking it has been a "long, strange trip" in getting from where we started (marketing conserved water to the coast) to ending up where we are now (treading it).

Where we started was at the threshold of an ag-to-urban water market that did not yet exist, but one that offered to convert a large and expensive problem into a new and self-sustaining revenue stream.

It was the mid-1990s, and the current bane of deregulation was thought to be the cure for whatever ailed the economy, even though nothing much did, but that only made it more progressive in the eyes of the forward-looking people who decide such things. Where we have ended up, though, is at the Salton Sea, the fate of which is now inextricably tied to that of the pending water transfer with San Diego and the outcome of a local debate that has never been fully aired, much less settled, despite repeated attempts to force a political solution.


This has naturally led to a certain amount of anxiety in the public policy arena, as the various agencies involved scramble to shift the blame for an environmental impact report that basically reports on the impact of fallowing on the Salton Sea, even as they distance themselves and their agencies from its findings.

You may also have wondered, as I have, why the discussion invariably seems to come back to fallowing? It is, after all, the "f-word" of local politics, still conjuring up emotionally charged images of scorched earth and economic dislocation in the Valley so that even the people who are for it as a means of conserving water want to call it something else.

According to the terms of the water transfer agreement signed in 1998 by the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority, fallowing is expressly forbidden as a means of conserving water for transfer, but the banishment has never taken hold at ground level, and it would be naive to believe it ever will.

Fallowing is like the guest who came to dinner, and decided to stay forever. The first time it showed up, the billionaire Bass brothers had a place at the table, and the main course was water, with IID suddenly talking about the transfer of up to 650,000 acre-feet a year, mainly through land fallowing, and at a price to be determined by the traditional market forces of supply and demand.

At the time, no one could say what conserved-water might go for on the open market (that is, once it opened) but the prospect of $650-an-acre-foot did not seem outside the realm of possibility. This signaled the effective launch of "water marketing," and its popularity among many (if not most) farmers was as understandable as it was unabashed. That popular appeal has diminished somewhat in the intervening years, mainly due to the price established in the IID/San Diego deal, which is about $250 per acre-foot, and the chilling effect of an EIR that cost millions to produce, but would cost billions more if actually put into practice.

While not forgotten by some, the Basses are gone from the scene and so are the people at IID who were most committed to their particular vision of water as the next public traded frontier of the new economy. Meanwhile, those same previously warring factions along the lower Colorado River made amends and negotiated a separate Quantification Settlement Agreement that was supposed to provide a framework for peace in our time, and smooth the way for an eventual IID/San Diego transfer.

But a not-so-funny thing happened to the QSA on its way around certain provisions of the Endangered Species Act, namely the aforementioned Salton Sea, an ecological and economic quagmire-in-waiting under just about any water transfer scenario.

Still, it is only the latest tar baby to ensnare the deal with San Diego, which has generally suffered from a lack of forward momentum since it was agreed to in 1998. The agreement's greatest enemy, though, is time, as water is supposed to begin flowing to the coast from the farms of the Imperial Valley a year from now.

But where, precisely, will the water come from, and how will it be saved, if not by fallowing? And where are the participation guidelines that lay out the established rules, arrived at after years of gathering public input?

As for the Salton Sea, which is now the sticky wicket of water marketing, who is going to assume the mantle of leadership in restoring it, if not the federal government?

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