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Should state fail to fulfill

June 16, 2002

quantification conditions,

‘law of the river' will prevail


Staff Writer

LA QUINTA — Leaving aside the rhetoric, the federal government acknowledged the so-called "law of the river" will prevail should California's overdraw from the Colorado River be suddenly cut.

Bennett Raley, assistant U.S. secretary of the Interior for science and water, said should California fail to complete the conditions precedent for the quantification settlement agreement to become effective by the end of the year, the state's 1931 Seven Party Priority Agreement would determine how much water each agency would receive.


The first to be cut would be the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Raley said, as did Dennis Underwood, MWD vice president for Colorado River resources.

The discussion was part of a joint hearing here Friday between the House of Representatives and the state Senate on the status of the transfer of water between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority, considered a cornerstone to the state's overall plan to reduce its river draw from 5.2 million acre-feet yearly to its normal flow draw of 4.4 million. The excess is being used by the coastal plains of Los Angeles and San Diego.

Hearing members were Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, state Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno and Assemblyman Dave Kelley, R-La Quinta.

Under the Seven Party agreement, MWD holds the fourth priority, for 550,000 acre-feet, while San Diego no longer holds rights to Colorado River water, having subordinated them to MWD in the 1940s.

IID holds the third priority, with an elastic water right, meaning its draw varies based on what the higher priorities draw, the Palo Verde Irrigation District and the Bureau of Reclamation's Yuma Division. Overall, the agricultural agencies hold the rights to 3.85 million acre-feet yearly during normal flows on the river. Subordinate to IID in priority three is the Coachella Valley Water District, followed by MWD.

Raley was asked how the Department of the Interior would carry out its reduction in flow to California if needed. He said it would be accomplished through the annual operating plan, which is a consensus document currently under development with input from the seven basin states. He said there are two plans being developed. One AOP assumes interim surplus guidelines are in place, while the seconds assumes they are not.

Under the ISG, California is assured of surplus declarations on the river for 15 years allowing a so-called soft landing as the state cuts its water use. The ISG would be canceled if river reservoirs are reduced to certain levels that would negatively impact other states. The river's watershed is in a third year of a drought with this year's snow pack only 30 percent of normal.

Raley said there is a certain amount of flexibility in the Interior's operations, and that it is his understanding California's 2003 benchmark — to reduce agricultural use by 106,000 acre-feet, through the IID/MWD 1988 conservation agreement — is already in place.

Besides river operations, the hearing dwelled on the environmental aspects of the water transfer and the Salton Sea.

Tom Hannigan, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said the key remaining obstacle to the QSA is California's fully protected species act.

"They center around the Salton Sea and how we deal with the issue," Hannigan said. "I think we have to focus our attention to solving this within the timeline (of the QSA)."

It is thought the conservation of water on-farm would result in the taking of certain endangered species at the Salton Sea. While an Assembly bill has been introduced to potentially allow for incidental takings, IID is concerned that it also alludes to mandatory fallowing as a means to generate water for transfer.

Costa said the QSA does not require the Salton Sea issue to be resolved, and with few answers available on how to deal with the sea, the QSA should move forward.

Hannigan agreed, adding the sea must be dealt with, and suggested fallowing should be discussed.

Meanwhile, Hunter asked Raley to explain how it is that after months of negotiations between IID and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over a Salton Sea habitat conservation plan, that Fish & Wildlife suddenly rejected it.

IID Chief Counsel John Penn Carter said talks spanned more than nine months and implied IID would be willing to spend as much as $130 million on a 5,000-acre fish pond and hatchery plan until it was discarded in favor of fallowing. California's Fish & Game Department also rejected the pond and hatchery plan.

Raley said he lacks line authority over Fish & Wildlife but talks have been held and a final decision has not been made. In his written testimony, Raley says, a habitat conservation plan "under section 10 of the (Endangered Species Act) is the preferred approach." Section 10 allows for the incidental taking of endangered species.

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