A normally quiet group of directors at the San Diego County Water Authority erupted in applause Thursday after approving the landmark Colorado River water-sharing accord known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement.
The board also approved Option II of the agreement, which gives San Diego more than 77,000 acre-feet of water annually that it hadn't anticipated even a month ago. That water is guaranteed for 110 years and it is in addition to the massive transfer for which officials have been planning for many years. An acre-foot of water will satisfy the needs of two average families for a year.
"Everything else can go to hell in a hand basket but we will still have this 77,000 acre-feet of water for 110 years," said Keith Lewinger, a member of the board representing Fallbrook, during the meeting.
The board's vote came two days after officials at the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles also approved the accord. Wednesday, a third party in the agreement, the Coachella Valley Water District, approved it as well.
That leaves the Imperial Irrigation District whose board of directors has been meeting on and off recently with residents and landowners in the agriculturally rich area to facilitate an affirmative vote as well. Rumors were spreading at the San Diego gathering Thursday that Imperial officials may decide to approve the accord before their scheduled Oct. 7 meeting.
Assuming they do, San Diego County would immediately begin receiving the first gallons of what will eventually be an annual reallocation of 200,000 acre-feet of water transferred away from the farmland in the Imperial Valley to the more urban coast. It's a transfer that many at the meeting called historic.
"San Diego can breathe a little bit easier today about its future water supply," said Bernie Rhinerson, chairman of the board of directors.
Only one director at the meeting, Chuck Newton from Del Mar, voted against the accord and the accompanying commitment to line the two canals an effort that will eventually net San Diego the yearly allotment of 77,000 acre-feet.
County Water Authority staff scrambled later in the day to get the word out that Newton had decided to change his vote, making the board's approval unanimous.
Newton wasn't alone in his concern though. Many had wondered how San Diego had come about what seemed like such a fortuitous development. Although county officials have been planning for more than a decade to secure a major transfer of water from agricultural areas who have higher priority claims to the Colorado River water, they were surprised that they could take over the canal lining projects and reap the benefits of it.
For nearly a decade, Metropolitan Water District officials were planning to line the canals and take the water that was saved. Much of the design and permitting process for the projects has been completed as well.
Newton and others wondered why Metropolitan would then decide to hand the project over to San Diego. "I don't think they would offer it unless there was something in it they didn't want," he said.
The two transfers from Imperial will make up about 21 percent of San Diego's water supplies by the year 2015. The county currently relies on "non-firm" purchases from the Metropolitan Water District for 37 percent of its water. The transfers, desalination projects and other measures will help San Diego cut that number down to 5 percent by 2015. San Diego will still buy 46 percent of its water from Metropolitan, the amount to which it has a preferential right.
Among more than a dozen specific provisions of the agreement is one that requires San Diego to pay $64 million toward environmental mitigation measures to make up for expected damages that will be caused when the different transfers and implementations take place.
The Imperial Irrigation District will also transfer up to 1.6 million acre-feet of water annually to the state, which will sell it at a profit to Metropolitan. The revenues of those sales will go to a restoration fund for the Salton Sea.
The little-anticipated water transfer from the canal lining projects won't be cheap. San Diego will have to pay any extra construction costs that aren't covered by a special state fund and it will have to pay a higher rate to move transferred water through Metropolitan's vast water network.
The extra costs will be passed on to consumers but Rhinerson said it was worth it. "We know that water is going to be costing more, that no matter what, the cost is going up. But it's important that we have water and that's what we secured today," he said.