Water rights ownership hot topic during meeting with S.D. official

April 24, 2002|By RUDY YNIGUEZ

Staff Writer

There is no doubt in the mind of the San Diego County Water Authority that water rights in the Imperial Valley are owned by the Imperial Irrigation District.

This and a number of other issues important to local farmers were raised Friday with Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.

Brawley area farmer Mike Morgan asked why the San Diego County Water Authority is negotiating with IID when Stapleton had previously said decisions affecting farming should not be made by nonfarmers, and if there will be sessions to renegotiate any terms of the water transfer agreement, that San Diego ought to consider dealing with farmers instead of the IID.


Stapleton urged Morgan and others present to make their concerns known to the IID Board of Directors. She agreed that in 1995 when the Bass brothers approached the San Diego County Water Authority with a proposal to sell water allegedly owned by them, that County Water Authority legal counsel concluded the IID board holds title to the water.

"(The Bass brothers) thought they owned it, and when our attorneys looked into it, it was clear to our attorneys that actually IID owned it in trust on behalf of the community," Stapleton said when interviewed after the meeting. "So we have an obligation to negotiate and craft a deal with the appropriate party, and in this case it is Imperial Irrigation District. We have no additional information from either Mike Morgan or from any of the farmers which disputes that in fact IID does own the water in trust for the community."

Stapleton was in the Imperial Valley to update farmers on the transfer of water to San Diego, answer questions and hear their concerns. The meeting included members of the Imperial County Farm Bureau and the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.

Several farmers told Stapleton they are concerned that Imperial Valley farmers do not want to be held liable for environmental impacts to the Salton Sea from the transfer. Farmers are seeking indemnification from the transfer's effects.

El Centro area farmer Heidi Kuhn said in the eyes of farmers the transfer has gone from a desire to make a profit to a desire to "save our ass." She said the SDCWA would do well to negotiate with a desire to just salvage the transfer at this point. She said if farmers are left believing the deal is not good for them they might walk away from it and just fight it out. She said it would easier to spread the risks of the transfer among the large population in San Diego than more than 400 Imperial Valley farmers.

"We might not be able to do it if we can't cover our costs and cover our liabilities," she said. "What's so bad about that?"

Stapleton replied that the focus of talks and the absolute priority should be to cover the costs and liabilities, but that unjustifiable request cannot be met because the authority also has ratepayers to whom to answer. Stapleton said as far as profits are concerned, she has no problem.

Stapleton also was asked what would happen if the Dec. 31, 2002, deadline to meet the so-called conditions precedent for the quantification settlement are not met.

"I believe the federal government will come in and beat us all to death," she said, adding that lawsuits will then be filed. She said the Coachella Valley Water District will immediately sue the IID over reasonable and beneficial use of water, and the other six basin states will sue the federal government to end surplus declarations on the Colorado River that are in place for the next 15 years to help California wean itself from excess river water. "It should be a really fun 2003."

Brawley-area farmer and former IID board member Don Cox said the only way to accomplish the transfer without affecting the Salton Sea is to use fallowing.

IID General Manager Jesse Silva agreed.

"If you do that, you shift the impacts from the sea to the community," he said, adding the fallowing strategy would have to be raised by an outside agency with the authority to tell IID what to do.

Stapleton also was asked why her print ads always refer to $50 million, when it will take about 10 years of transfer to reach that level.

"Because we're talking about a 75-year deal, and we always talk about the need to save 200,000 acre-feet of water," she said. "That 200,000 acre-feet represents $50 million."

The latest SDCWA ad also said "it is expected that the money will be used to enhance the quality of life in the Imperial Valley by paying for economic development, job creation and community improvements," among other things. Stapleton was asked to reconcile the comments in the ad with the public position that the SDCWA will not meddle in Imperial Valley affairs.

"A portion of the $50 million was always planned on going to community impacts," she said. "It was discussed during negotiations and it was part of the total package."

She said community impacts, environmental cost and farmer incentives have always been a part of the package.

"We are just restating it," Stapleton said.

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

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