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Voice: Farmers, IID should not bear transfer mitigation burdens

April 19, 2002

There has been a recent rumor that the Bureau of Reclamation would turn the water off to Valley farmers if a water deal with San Diego is not reached by 2003. I do not believe it for a minute, and I am sure the bureau was not the source of the rumor.

Representatives of San Diego and Imperial Valley should reject such rumors because they can only poison negotiations, are nonproductive and baseless and are sure to backfire on those who propagate them.

First, the bureau is an executive agency within the executive branch of government. It executes and administers the law — in this case, water law. It does not make or change water law.

Established water law confers senior and superior water rights to Imperial Valley farmers and landowners. True, the Valley's farm population is small compared to nearby coastal urban areas, but that is not what determines water law. If this were the case, Arizona would have lost the Winter's Supreme Court decision to populous California in 1961. Instead, sparsely populated Arizona won its water case based on the law and the merits of its water rights.

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Imperial Valley farmers and landowners are similarly positioned as Arizona once was. Except when Valley farmers are compared to coastal urban Southern California, they are in an even stronger position regarding their legal water rights than was Arizona.

In another vein, at this stage in the water negotiations, water lease transfer proceedings should be shelved while the potential for massive environmental liability exists, a liability Valley farmers and the Imperial Irrigation District should not touch or bear at all.

Instead, the San Diego County Water Authority and Imperial Valley farmers and their representatives should partner to obtain state and federal legislation that would exempt farm-to-city water transfers from any significant environmental and third-party liability based on the proposition they are basically in the public interest.

It is time for state and federal legislators to do their part to facilitate a deal between willing parties stymied by possible environmental consequences too big for any local jurisdiction to mitigate or resolve. This step should be taken whether water is conserved by fallowing or by on-farm conservation measures or a combination of both, because there is sure to be a lawsuit filed against whichever course the parties choose without the legislation.

Farmers cannot agree to lease water to a needy San Diego and then be slaughtered by state agencies or such federal agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, or by the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society, or anyone else.

This is not to say mitigation should be ignored. Pains should be made to alleviate adverse impacts to the Salton Sea and to third parties where possible, as long as the expense is limited and reasonable. Charitable and voluntary efforts to save the sea should be permitted and encouraged wherever possible, even if it requires special legislation. However, farmers and IID cannot, and should not, be placed in the position of being legally and financially responsible for major mitigation efforts designed to save the Salton Sea.

This kind of approach and attention from legislators may begin to aid farmers and local public policy-makers in their labors to resolve a major water issue of utmost concern and complexity to significant populations and economic interests in this arid Southwest.

TIM HAWK

San Diego

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