"Peace Plan" Offered in California Water War

March 13, 2003
California officials presented the Bush administration with a proposal they believe will end a bitter water war between the Interior Department and Southern California that has cost the state 13 percent of its take from the Colorado River.

In a move Gov. Gray Davis hailed as "a major breakthrough in addressing California's long-term water needs," officials outlined a "peace plan" brokered among four Southern California water agencies that rely upon the Colorado to supply customers.

Davis expressed confidence the plan would satisfy the Interior Department, which slashed California's haul of the Colorado by 600,000 acre-feet this year -- enough water to serve 1.2 million people -- after the four agencies missed a Dec. 31 deadline to sign a deal that would reduce the state's historic over- dependence on the river.

Davis officials presented the proposal to Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley at a closed-door meeting in Los Angeles to salvage the Colorado River water-sharing deal.

"Most of the heavy lifting is done," Davis spokesman Byron Tucker said of the proposal. "Now Mr. Raley, who was very receptive to the presentation, needs to take it back and vet it with his folks. But we are confident that the revised agreement in principle will please the Interior Department."

Raley said he needed time to review the proposal but said it could be difficult to reverse the cuts. The agreement announced Wednesday is contingent on the Interior Department's restoring California's share of the drought- ravaged river.

"Sometimes it's very difficult to get the genie back in the bottle, and that's what we're struggling with," Raley said.

The proposal followed weeks of talks between state mediators and Imperial Irrigation District, which serves 6,000 customers, most of them farms; Metropolitan Water District, which serves 17 million people in Southern California; San Diego County Water Authority; and Coachella Valley Water District. All have approved the proposal, officials said.

At the heart of the plan is the annual transfer of 200,000 acre-feet from the Imperial Valley -- by far California's biggest user of Colorado River water -- to San Diego for 75 years.

That transfer was the centerpiece of the plan that collapsed in December amid concerns that shifting so much water could harm the Salton Sea and leave the Imperial Irrigation District liable.

The plan unveiled Wednesday requires San Diego and Metropolitan Water to place $200 million in an interest-bearing account to finance any environmental mitigations. Local entities would provide another $43 million.

"We got the protections we felt were essential," said Sue Giller, a spokeswoman for the Imperial Irrigation District.

The Legislature must allocate $50 million from Prop. 50, a water quality bond measure, for environmental mitigations. Another $200 million would be taken from the bond measure to finance unspecified water management projects by San Diego and Metropolitan Water.

To ease Interior Department concerns that the earlier proposal made it too easy for the water districts to back out, the latest plan tightens the guidelines on when, and why, the districts can nullify the agreement.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle