Interior Dept. to cut California off from Colorado River water rights

The Olympian


SAN DIEGO, CA-- The Interior Department said Friday that next year it will begin taking away from California enough Colorado River water to supply roughly 1.4 million people in 2003, ensuring allocations for six other Western states.
The cut amounts to 13 percent of the total water that California has been taking from the river.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton warned of a cutback earlier this month after the collapse of a long-term deal aimed at curbing California's overdependence on the river. But it was unclear exactly who would be affected and by how much until the Interior Department approved 2003 orders for Colorado River water Friday.

Interior officials did, however, give California a way out. The state can avoid the cutback if Southern California water agencies resurrect a 75-year deal to transfer Colorado water from desert farms to cities by Dec. 31. The deal collapsed Dec. 9 when the Imperial Valley refused to sell a drop of its massive share of Colorado River water to coastal cities.

"This is a California choice," said Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley, the Bush administration's point man on Western water issues.

The impending cuts will increase the pressure on water officials in the Imperial Valley to approve the deal.

The Imperial Valley water board has scheduled a meeting for Monday, following several days of intense discussions with other Southern California water agencies aimed at reviving the deal. The board said it may take action.

"We're working really hard to make a long-term regional solution happen," said Sue Giller, a spokesman for the Imperial Irrigation District.

If no deal is reached by Dec. 31, the cuts will fall hardest on Los Angeles and San Diego, the nation's second- and seventh-biggest cities, and farmers in Imperial County, California's poorest. The reduction will be achieved by holding back water behind Hoover Dam.

The Metropolitan Water District, which supplies 17 million people in Southern California, is losing the most water out of all the agencies involved -- enough for more than 800,000 people in 2003. The district has said it has enough reserves to make up the shortfall for at least the next two years.

In a surprise move, the Interior Department is also cutting back water to Imperial Valley farmers in California's far southeast corner.

They are losing enough water to supply 400,000 people, roughly 7 percent of the trillion gallons of water they use to grow $1 billion worth of food in the desert each year.

"The interior secretary does not have the authority to unilaterally do what she is attempting to do," said John Carter, legal counsel for the Imperial Irrigation District. "Her action is in violation of IID's water rights and its existing agreement."

Water-sharing agreements that date back to the Great Depression give farmers in the Southern California desert a greater claim to California's Colorado River water.

But Congress made the interior secretary the "master" of the lower Colorado, endowing the office with sweeping powers to allocate water.

Carter said the secretary's action will distract from efforts to revive the water transfer as time is running out.

Ironically, that water will be redirected to the Metropolitan Water District. Under the water transfer it rejected, Imperial Valley would have sold the same amount of Colorado water to San Diego. Raley said that fact was simply a coincidence.


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