U.S. Water News Online
LAS VEGAS -- Likening the West's latest water war to a
``high-stakes game of power,'' Interior Secretary Gale Norton played
a hand none of her predecessors have: cutting back the amount of
water California draws from the Colorado River.
Norton said the history of the Colorado River, which brings water
to millions of people in seven states, had reached a turning point,
declaring, ``The era of limits is upon us.''
As of Jan. 1, the Interior Department will begin withholding river
water from California, Norton said, although exactly how much water
the state would lose had yet to be worked out. Water agencies
supplying Los Angeles and San Diego said they have enough reserves to
last two years.
For years, the state has used enough excess water from the
Colorado to supply 1.6 million households because other states didn't
use their full share. Rapid growth in the West, combined with the
worst drought in the river's history, forced the Interior Department
to crack down.
``As secretary and river master, I must enforce the law of the
river,'' Norton said at the Colorado River Water Users Association's
annual convention in Las Vegas. ``This means I will hold California
to the express covenant it made in 1929 to limit its use of the
The secretary's move, which had been widely expected, comes in the
wake of the collapse of a historic water-sharing pact aimed at
reducing California's long-standing overuse of the river known as
``America's Nile'' serving millions from Denver to San Diego.
California had until Dec. 31 to adopt a plan to curb its overuse
of the river or face immediate cutbacks. But she offered to allow
California's usual surplus to flow through the Hoover Dam if the
state could sign the pact after the deadline.
Imperial Valley, home to California's poorest residents and by far
the state's biggest user of the Colorado, removed the linchpin to the
deal recently when local water officials narrowly rejected a 75-year
deal to transfer water from desert farms to San Diego and other
Reducing California's draw from the Colorado will have little
impact on the Imperial Valley, which is entitled to its massive share
of river water. But it will be felt in Los Angeles and San Diego,
which are forced to import water.
``Over time, the reduction in Colorado River water could have very
real impacts to all water users in Southern California,'' Norton
Negotiators for San Diego and Imperial were holding talks in Las
Vegas to try to resurrect the deal, but both sides seemed far apart.
A major sticking point was the Salton Sea, an inland lake fed by
salt-laden farm runoff.
``The people of the valley officially found themselves between the
devil and the Salton Sea,'' Imperial's water board said. The sea is
home to endangered species but may soon be too salty to support them.
Imperial officials fear they will get stuck with the cost of fixing
the problem, the cost of which has been estimated as high as $1
Norton said the problem of the Salton Sea was so large that its
solution to the Salton Sea must come from the Congress, and she could
offer no further inducements for Imperial.
``I don't see anybody stepping forward to sweeten the pot,'' she
The Interior secretary promised in her speech at the lavish
Caesar's Palace casino that her department would show its hand and
prove that the department is not bluffing. But Imperial Valley water
officials believe they have a better hand to play.
``My deck has five aces,'' said Stella Mendoza, president of the
Imperial Irrigation District's board and a staunch opponent of the
The valley does hold some powerful cards. It's the nation's
largest irrigation project, controlling a trillion gallons of water a
year -- about 70 percent of all the Colorado River water that throws
Imperial water officials offered to ship San Diego enough water
for 400,000 people over five years for $20 million.
``Take it or leave it,'' Mendoza said. Southern California water
users say they want a long-term deal.
Dennis Cushman of the San Diego County Water Authority was more
hopeful that some accommodation could be reached. He strongly urged
the Imperial Valley to reconsider, given the alternatives.
The board ``will determine the destiny of the valley for years to
come through their votes,'' he said. ``Failure to confirm these
agreements will open up the greatest era of unrest that the parties
have ever faced on the Colorado River.''
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