Our Opinion: A failed transafer out to dry

March 21, 2002

If people were going to lay bets today on whether a transfer of water from the Imperial Irrigation District to San Diego will actually occur, we think it would be a 50-50 bet, with the final outcome as yet undecided.

We say this because in our estimation it is not certain what the outcome will be when it comes time for the IID board to vote. We figure there is one vote adamantly against the transfer, another that calls the transfer a "dead dog," two who likely favor it at this point, and one who has publicly said if the transfer does not benefit the Imperial Valley as a whole it should not move forward.

One important aspect of the community as a whole — if not the most important aspect — is the farming community. Agree or not, it is the farming community being called upon to save 10 percent of the water that makes this area into a food and fiber giant.


No other business is as large or as valuable as farming. Its yearly value is in the $1 billion range. Anything that could upset that cart would be wrong-headed.

It should come as no surprise then that the Imperial County Farm Bureau developed its own on-farm conservation plan; a plan that would minimize the potentially lethal burden of massive debt needed to finance water conservation on-farm.

Admittedly, the proposal would entail temporary fallowing, but the fields taken out of production would be chosen as those most likely to free the most water. In addition, there likely would be time constraints on how long the land would be idled.

The proposal would have the IID seek bids from the farming community, and under control of the IID, the land would not be farmed. The unused water would be transferred to the San Diego County Water Authority, and the revenues would go toward permanent system and long-range on-farm savings. When the latter methods become sufficient, the resultant water would replace fallowing, and the idled lands could be brought back into production.

The plan isn't without problems, but what plan is? Under the current plan, farmers are being asked to put up their land for as long as 75 years, invest millions in conservation and pay back the money with a revenue stream that could dry up in as little as 10 years.

Sorry, but that sounds like an awful financial risk.

The Farm Bureau proposal fails to address the environmental impacts on the Salton Sea and third-party impacts from fallowing.

The current IID/San Diego transfer agreement does address the sea, but only to the tune of $30 million, and that's over the life of the 75 year deal. Estimates for restoring the already-dying sea are as high as $1.6 billion. What that means is the transfer will be rejected based on that cost.

We favor saving the sea, and as we've said before, it must be accomplished by all of the water agencies that get water from the IID and all levels of government.

Unfortunately, the other Southern California water agencies do not appear interested in helping. Their only interest is in getting the water as cheaply as possible. The state Legislature and Congress are equally disinterested, though Rep. Duncan Hunter and others are pushing for legislation to help save the sea.

No one really knows how the community will be impacted by fallowing. No one really knows how many, if any, jobs will be lost. Some farmers argue that as soon as the district gets money from the first year of fallowing, a conservation industry will spring up first to help IID save water by eliminating canal spills and by recovering canal seepage, and then to help farmers save water.

We're not interested in seeing people lose their jobs but as of today the real impacts remain unknown. And we still are against a long-term fallowing plan that (essentially) would be run by private interests for private profit.

One thing is certain, however. The farming community is being asked to invest as much as $240 million to save 300,000 acre-feet of water for wealthy coastal areas that have no water.

The question is, will the Imperial Valley community rally to help pay off that debt if the transfer ends up failing, gets killed due to environmental lawsuits or the price of water plummets?

Or will we sit here and watch thousands of jobs dry up as farmers are driven out of business from failed water-conservation investments?

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