Norton to sign water transfer deal

By Paul Rogers


In a ceremony today at Hoover Dam in Nevada -- America's pre-eminent

Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento....said the state should build more off-stream reservoirs, something environmentalists oppose but Sen. Dianne Feinstein supports.

monument to altering arid landscapes in search of water -- U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton will open a new era in the West's 100-year-long struggle to quench its thirst.

She is scheduled to sign a historic deal to transfer billions of gallons from California's desert farms to its burgeoning coastal cities.

The largest sale of water from agriculture to urban residents in U.S. history, its terms call for farmers in Imperial County, on California's southeastern border with Mexico, to sell as many as 200,000 acre-feet of water a year to San Diego for the next 75 years. The water, drawn from the Colorado River, is enough for 400,000 homes a year.

Business, political and environmental leaders in the north welcome the deal as reducing the chances that Southern California will pressure San Francisco Bay and the Delta for more water in years to come.

For other Western states grappling with exploding populations, it is seen as a milestone that frees up more of the Colorado River for their use.

"From a Westernwide standpoint, this is a momentous achievement," said Bennett Raley, assistant secretary of agriculture. "It is unparalleled in the history of the West."

The deal follows seven years of contentious negotiations among California, the federal government, Imperial Irrigation District, San Diego and other water agencies.

To understand why attention was focused on Imperial, one of the state's poorest counties, with only 140,000 residents, one needs only look at the math, said professor Richard Howitt, an agricultural economist at UC Davis.

Farmers use 80 percent of California's "developed water," or water that is captured in dams, reservoirs and canals, while contributing about 7 percent of the state's economy. Meanwhile, the state's population, driven by high levels of immigration, is growing by 600,000 people a year, the equivalent of adding a new San Jose every 18 months.

Despite conservation, sea water desalination, water recycling and other techniques, many experts believe the state cannot meet future needs without transfers of water from farms to cities.

"Imperial County is where the water is," said Howitt. "If you look at who can most afford to give up some water without harming their economy, it is Imperial County."

With water rights dating back 100 years, Imperial Valley turned searing deserts into an agricultural bounty by channeling more than 3 million acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River to grow alfalfa, carrots, wheat, cantaloupe and other crops. Its annual use is five times as much water as the city of Los Angeles uses.

The sale to San Diego means that Imperial County will have to fallow about 25,000 acres, or 5 percent of its total acreage, said Susan Giller, a spokeswoman for the Imperial Irrigation District.

Imperial farmers pay the federal government $15.50 an acre-foot for water and are going to sell it to San Diego for $258 an acre-foot.

Water transfers, even when voluntary, arouse great fears from rural residents. They often cite Los Angeles' hardball push 90 years ago to buy up water rights in the Owens Valley near Bishop, a tactic that destroyed the agricultural economy there, inspired the movie "Chinatown" and still engenders hard feelings.

Although many Imperial residents opposed the deal, the water district board passed it by a vote of 3-2 on Oct. 4. Supporters said had they not gone forward, they feared years of lawsuits with the federal government and urban areas.

"California's water needs are changing, and there's only so much water," said Giller. "This is a peace treaty. We think its a win-win solution."

Other farmers view it a bit more nervously.

"There's concern in the farm community that farmers and the people who live in rural communities don't want to be seen as the only answer to the state's water needs," said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento.

He said the state should build more off-stream reservoirs, something environmentalists oppose but Sen. Dianne Feinstein supports.

The Bush administration applied much of the pressure to close the Imperial-San Diego deal.

That's because, for years, California has taken more water from the Colorado River than is allowed under a 1928 agreement with Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. California is allowed 4.4 million acre-feet, but takes as many as 5.2 million a year. As populations have grown in Las Vegas, Phoenix and other cities, they have demanded their share.

The Clinton administration gave California until Dec. 31, 2002, to come up with a plan to reduce the extra use. When the state missed that deadline, Norton immediately cut the state's Colorado River water allotment by 800,000 acre-feet, enough for 1.6 million households. Imperial sued Norton and won a partial victory, but the case could have dragged for years. Today's deal sets a timetable for the state to reduce use to 4.4 million acre-feet by 2015.

Environmentalists see water transfers as a tool to avoid construction of large new dams. But some remain concerned that Southern California still could pressure the north for more water, particularly if there is a drought anytime soon, because it will take 15 years for the full amount of the water to start being transferred.

"This provides a precedent for other transfers not just in California but across the West," said Tom Graff, senior attorney at Environmental Defense in Oakland. "We support it, but it doesn't solve everything."


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