Our Opinion: Canal seepage belongs to us

May 14, 2002

In the realm of dwindling resources, none is more on the minds of local residents than water. Of course, it's not on our minds because there is less of it available in the long run. Rather, there will be less of it because of the demand that the Imperial Valley's lifeblood be given to outsiders; outsiders whose poor planning is being paid for by locals.

As fewer and fewer sources of water become available at cost-effective prices, a significant amount can still be obtained through the recovery of seepage from our major canals. Two of those canals are the All-American and the Coachella branch. Roughly 94,000 acre-feet yearly are seeping into the ground, with about 67,000 of that moving south of the international border.

 The issue of what to do with the seepage is timely because of recommendations by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories that the water be used as a temporary source of fresh water to help an ailing Salton Sea. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, commissioned the study. We think the recommendation would have some validity if it weren't that the water should first be recovered and supplied for farming, and secondly, if there weren't a federal law prohibiting Colorado River water from going to the sea for exactly this purpose.


Mexicali Valley farmers have been using the water freely since the All-American Canal was built, but the water is not theirs. It belongs to the Imperial Irrigation District, whose customers pay for it to be diverted at Imperial Dam for use on farms, for industry and for our growing cities. The water just happens to seep out of the leaky structure on its way.

As such, IID has long laid claim to the right to line the canal to recover the leakage. The International Boundary and Water Commission has already weighed in on the side of IID as well.

Nevertheless, farmers in the Mexicali Valley are upset that the canal will be lined, and Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy Walther is now weighing on their side. Rightly so, at least from his perspective, because of the potential impact to the farms in the area.

Despite that, the water belongs to IID.

Under a 1944 treaty between Mexico and the United States, Mexico is guaranteed 1.5 million acre-feet yearly from the Colorado River, in addition to another 200,000 during surplus conditions. Nobody else is guaranteed anything.

Meanwhile, despite IID's claims to the seepage, the district doesn't have the $200 million it will take to line the canal. Realizing this, the IID Board of Directors agreed to include the seepage in the state's agricultural quantification settlement. The state will pay to line the canal and the water goes to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, as will the seepage recovered from lining the remaining section of the Coachella Canal. Some of the recovered water also will go to the San Luis Rey Indian Water District in northern San Diego County.

Allowing our neighbors to the west to take that water is another in the many signs of the good will being demonstrated by the people of the Imperial Valley in helping the state to resolve the ongoing overconsumption of water on the coastal plain.

Thus, while the Imperial Valley uses significant amounts of water to grow food and fiber for a growing nation, we are not the ones who've created the water shortage in this state.

The water that seeps from the All-American Canal is ours and it should be recovered for our beneficial use, despite Mexico's concerns.

After all, we already know once the American-financed Mexicali wastewater treatment plants fully come on line, Mexico will treat the water in the New River and that flow of water into this country's Salton Sea will cease.

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