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Our Opinion: Water: An always tough issue

June 19, 2002

Likely the most talked about issue in the Imperial Valley is the pending transfer of water from the Imperial Irrigation District to the San Diego County Water Authority. From the beginning, the 300,000 acre-foot yearly transfer has been based on conserving water on-farm and shipping it to the coast.

A congressional hearing last week brought out one important conclusion: the state's 1931 Seven Party Agreement governs how water is divided once the federal government delivers it to the state. Although the Department of the Interior claims it can take water from any user not putting it to beneficial use, it's quite a leap to assume any use is more beneficial than growing food.

The IID/San Diego transfer is but one of several future movements of water out of the Valley. Others include a 35-year extension of the 1988 IID/Metropolitan Water District of Southern California conservation agreement for 106,000 acre-feet and two 50,000 acre-foot transfers to the Coachella Valley Water District and/or MWD. These latter are actually the third 100,000 acre-feet referred to in the IID/San Diego agreement.

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Once portions of the All-American Canal get lined, the resultant 67,700 acre-feet will also go to MWD, of which 11,500 acre-feet go to the 1988 federal settlement with the San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority in eastern San Diego County. A further 25,300 acre-feet from the lining of the Coachella Canal will go to MWD, with about 4,500 of that to the San Luis Rey.

Coachella will pay $50 an acre-foot plus environmental costs for the first 50,000 acre-feet, with the second 50,000 at $125 plus costs, while San Diego will pay about $249 — likely less — for up to 200,000 acre-feet, while MWD will get the water from the state-paid lining of the canals at cost.

Combined, all of these transfers make up the agricultural quantification settlement and are the heart of the state's plan to reduce its draw from the Colorado River from 5.2 million acre-feet to 4.4 million during normal flow years.

Although the IID has been willing to cooperate in helping the state meet its needs for water through conservation, it now finds itself under increasing pressure to use farmland fallowing instead. It is thought that fallowing land will alleviate the impacts to the Salton Sea, which is likely true, but what happens is the impacts are shifted to the local community in the form of lost jobs and ruined businesses.

Fallowing will be the Imperial Valley's domino effect to economic ruin.

If anything good is coming from all of this, it is that the IID Board of Directors is adamantly opposed to fallowing. Unfortunately, of the two habitat conservation plans to mitigate the Salton Sea, the only remaining HCP involves fallowing. We'll have to see what happens.

On a separate issue, we're pleased to see the San Diego Union-Tribune showing renewed interest in the transfer. Of course, that interest lies only with the editorial board. On the down side is the editorials contain too many factual errors, making it impossible to reach any common sense conclusions. The Union-Tribune isn't alone in this. Other print sources do the same. We've seen poorly written stories and editorials in the Sacramento Bee, Copley News Service and other publications. (We praise Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times, though, for his continuing high-quality work on the issue.)

We understand the issue is a complicated one and requires a fairly good knowledge of the Law of the River, the QSA documents, the IID/San Diego transfer agreement, the San Diego/MWD exchange agreement and others.

Without that background knowledge, what's the point in writing about it? We've seen what happens when the ill-informed chose to talk water.

Witness Gov. Gray Davis and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

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