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Voice: Valley needs to set minimum requirements for transfer

June 05, 2002

The stakes are going up regarding Imperial Valley water now that Gov. Davis and Sen. Feinstein have joined the water fray in a very public way. The question is: what is it going to take to end the stalemate for everyone's benefit in a timely manner?

As panic builds along the coast with the impending reductions in the cities' current overconsumption of Colorado River water, there is a window of opportunity for Valley leaders to convey to state and federal officials and San Diego some minimum Valley requirements under a revised water lease agreement.

Under the law, because the terms of the original San Diego water transfer agreement are changing, the original agreement is technically dead. However, a short-term interim lease agreement of 100,000 acre-feet per year for three to five years would be reasonable given the pressure from the other Colorado River Basin states and our own urban areas to create immediate water savings for lease. During the interim period, an agreement based on long-term solutions can be developed.

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The new interim agreement should include the following.

1. Voluntary and limited fallowing by farmers in return for receiving fair market rent, indexed for inflation, for their conserved water. In determining fair rent, consideration should be given to the fact the cost of desalinizing seawater is about $1,500 an acre-foot, and often higher, and Kern County farmers have received $1,000 an acre-foot. There should be adequate provision of water for leaching and added funding for tile or drainage lines needed to prevent toxic salt accumulation regarding any fallowed farmland. Weed control related to fallowed land should also be funded.

2. Funding for Salton Sea and other area mitigation studies and planning processes should be provided for while simultaneously providing federal and state statutes exempting farmers, the Imperial Irrigation District and county governments from any environmental impact liability in connection with the water lease transfer.

3. Agreements should be made to fund severance pay and a state-of-the-art job training or retraining center in El Centro for those citizens who can demonstrate significant adverse impact caused by the transfer, as well as funding for a nearby state of the art athletic/recreation center, including facilities with in-door air conditioning. Coupled with these provisions should be state and federal exemptions for farmers, IID and county governments from any third-party liability in connection with the transfer.

4. Stipulation that the transfer is no way jeopardizes the status of the senior water rights held by farmers and landowners as the primary water beneficiaries of the IID trust.

This interim agreement should provide time to create a feasible long-term agreement. The long-term solution to the water situation should probably involve water conservation through more on-farm water technologies and less reliance on fallowing, though fallowing does make sense in certain instances, such as in regard to sandy soils that use inordinate amounts of water to grow low-value crops.

It is time for state and federal officials and San Diego to come forward with the necessary funding and statutory exemptions needed to provide a practical interim water transfer agreement. Arrogance and bluster will carry no weight with Valley pioneers or with the courts. Short of these kinds of requirements being met soon, the greater the risk of intense, expensive and protracted legal combat regarding the water issue.

TIM HAWK

San Diego/Holtville

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