U.S. Water News Online
LOS ANGELES -- Imperial Valley water officials have found
themselves caught between state and local interests as they struggle
to decide whether to approve a billion dollar water transfer from
desert farms to fast growing San Diego.
The agriculture-to-urban transfer is key to ending decades of
dispute over the Colorado River. It also is the cornerstone of a
water plan California must present to the federal government by Dec.
31 -- or face a drastic, immediate cut to its river supply by the
Department of the Interior.
California has used more than its share of Colorado River water
for years, but until recently it didn't matter because the other
states didn't use all of their allotments.
The deal calls for farmer to implement more efficient farming
techniques to conserve water and for farmers to receive money in
exchange for fallowing some of their land. Imperial Valley business
leaders and farm workers fear the plan will crush the agriculture
dependent region in southeastern California. The proposed fallowing
is difficult for many to accept in Imperial Valley, a region that is
proud of its nearly 100-year farming tradition.
``It's a situation of damned if we do, damned if we don't,'' said
Imperial Irrigation District board member Andy Horne.
The five-member board tentatively agreed to the transfer in
October, along with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern
California, the Palo Verde Irrigation District and the San Diego
County Water Authority. All the other water district boards already
have ratified the water transfer agreement.
The agreement includes the transfer of up to 500,000 acre feet of
water a year. The largest single portion, 200,000 acre feet, would go
to San Diego. One acre foot is enough to cover one acre of land with
one foot of water, an amount equivalent to about 326,000 gallons.
The Imperial Valley board likely will not vote until December,
after it holds more public forums and its staff finalizes the terms
of the agreement.
Some board members only agreed to the initial deal after Assembly
Speaker Emeritus Robert Hertzberg -- who moderated the negotiations
-- threatened them, Horne said.
``I remember him talking about sending people to follow our
farmers and essentially putting them out of business if we didn't do
this deal,'' Horne said.
Horne said Hertzberg talked about stirring up farmworker unions
over labor conditions and even legislating the water board out of
Hertzberg said he was simply conveying ideas that were floating
around the state Legislature.
``There were public statements by others, and I was simply
referring to those,'' Hertzberg said. ``I was just giving them my
On the other side of the debate, community members at a public
forum demanded board members oppose the deal.
``We elect officials to make decisions, popular or unpopular,'' El
Centro resident Jaime Gonzalez was quoted as saying in the Imperial
``There comes a time for elected officials to listen to the
people. If the people don't want it, don't do it,'' he said.
The transfer touches only a fraction of the more than 3 million
acre feet Imperial Valley farms receive from the Colorado River each
year, but community members fear it is only the first of water grabs
by coastal cities.
Bruce Kuhn, considered a swing vote on the board, said he is most
concerned about the district's responsibility to the Salton Sea, a
nearby inland body of water that serves as a rest stop to hundreds of
thousands of migratory birds.
The sea survives on farm runoff.
Under the 75-year deal, Imperial Valley would transfer less water
during the first 15 years to protect the fragile sea. Farmers also
would fallow an average of 20,000 acres of land a year, out of the
400,000 acres in production, to ensure that enough water runs into
Officials, however, have yet to come up with a plan for long-term
protection of the sea. It likely will become too salty for wildlife
to survive in the next two decades unless measures are taken.
Kuhn questioned the value of continuing to feed the sea if state
and federal officials still don't have a plan for its long-term
``This transfer is not a done deal,'' Kuhn said.
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