California’s water binge skids to a halt

Interior Department cuts off state from ‘surplus’ Colorado River water

  • DESERT MIRAGE? Even as California struggles for access to surplus Colorado River water, there may not be much of a surplus. Lake Mead is now only 65 percent full

    U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
  • Map

    Diane Sylvain

As New Year’s Eve drew near, nowhere was the suspense as high as in California, where a hard-fought struggle over the Colorado River was drawing to a dramatic conclusion. Or so it seemed.

After a half-century binge on “surplus” Colorado River water that is increasingly needed by six other states, California pledged two years ago to reduce its take by a fifth. Many observers saw that pledge, which came under the so-called “4.4 Plan,” as a signal of the state’s readiness to come to grips with the limits of both the environment and the law (HCN, 5/21/01: Quenching the big thirst).

But making the 4.4 Plan work hasn’t been easy. In order to reduce its use of the Colorado without leaving urban residents dry, California has been scrambling to work out a series of conservation measures and farm-to-city water transfers. Under the terms of the plan, negotiated by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Department would wean California off the surplus Colorado River water slowly, over 15 years — if California could line up the water transfers by Dec. 31, 2002. If California couldn’t work it out, Babbitt and then his successor, Gale Norton, vowed to cut off the state from surplus water at the stroke of midnight.

And on New Year’s Eve, as California water agencies futilely struggled to finalize a crucial deal, Norton did just that, slashing California’s cut of the Colorado River by over 700,000 acre-feet, enough water for 1.6 million households.

Norton’s decision sent “an important message,” says California water law guru Joseph Sax. “I’m not sure that a lot of people believed (she would do) it.”

A game of chicken

In the final months before the deadline, negotiations turned on a crucial deal between the Imperial Irrigation District — the agricultural powerhouse that has rights to a fifth of the total water in the Colorado River — and San Diego, which would pay $50 million a year for 200,000 acre-feet of farm water. But in order to free up that much water without dooming wildlife at the Salton Sea, Imperial would have to let some of its farmland lie fallow (HCN, 9/16/02: The Royal Squeeze). And in a valley where farming is king, taking land out of production is anathema. The district rolled up its sleeves and promised to go down fighting.

In what was essentially a high-stakes game of chicken with the federal government, Imperial drew out the negotiation process to the last possible moment, despite heavy pressure from California’s congressional leaders and metropolitan areas. But Secretary Norton held her ground, and late in the afternoon on Dec. 31, just hours before the New Year, the embattled irrigation district approved a transfer deal that would fallow about 7 percent of its farmland for 15 years, if the state provided $350 million in loan guarantees and funding for environmental mitigation at the Salton Sea.

It looked like Imperial had sneaked in under the wire. But the Metropolitan Water District, Southern California’s giant water wholesaler, which serves 17 million people in L.A. and San Diego, refused to sign off on the last-minute deal, saying Imperial had penciled in too many conditions.

Without a signed deal, Secretary Norton cut 205,000 acre-feet from Imperial’s water order and reduced the Met’s take by a hefty 536,500 acre-feet, or 43 percent.

The federal government is willing to restore California’s access to the surplus water if all the parties approve the transfer this year, says Robert Johnson, the director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado region. But even as they try to convince the Met to sign the transfer deal, Imperial’s directors have vowed to fight the federal government’s water cutback in court. “It will not go unchallenged,” says Imperial board member Andy Horne.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are turning up the heat: State Senators Mike Machado and Sheila Kuehl, both Democrats, unveiled a bill that would slash Imperial’s water rights by a half-million acre-feet if the irrigation district can’t come up with some version of the San Diego transfer to which everyone can agree.

The Met, which is taking the biggest hit, has been aggressively scouring the state for other sources of water. The agency has amassed enough water for at least two years — through its existing supplies and several water transfer and storage agreements — and in early January it announced that it has access to 10 times that much. Environmental Defense’s Tom Graff says the Met’s war stash may be a bargaining chip to fend off demands from Imperial for any more concessions.

And the Met’s reach is long. It is negotiating to buy 205,000 acre-feet of water from irrigation districts in the Sacramento Valley — 450 miles north of Los Angeles — a deal that could provide welcome money to farmers plagued by a long slump in rice prices. Some Northern Californians worry, however, that the Met’s wide-ranging quest for water could revive the decades-old North-South water wars and imperil delicately negotiated restoration efforts in the San Francisco Bay Delta (HCN, 9/30/02: Delta Blues).

Unlimited horizons

Despite the New Year’s Eve meltdown, the federal government’s broader plan to wean California from its overuse of the Colorado actually seems to be forcing the state to live within its means. The fracas has given urban areas more incentive than ever to look for solutions within the state, focusing particularly on agriculture, which uses about three-quarters of the water in California. And despite the rhetoric from Imperial, the district acknowledges that its water probably will move to the cities on the coast.

“There is a real schizophrenia down here (about fallowing farmland),” says the Imperial board’s Horne, but he says that even in the agricultural bastion of the Imperial Valley, it’s “kind of (an accepted) principle now that Western water’s going to move from the farms to the cities.”

But even as people crow about California finally coming to terms with the “era of limits,” Southern California’s water agencies seem determined to push those limits further than ever. Dennis Cushman, the San Diego County Water Authority’s assistant general manager, says the agency is moving forward with a $270 million seawater desalination plant that will provide 56,000 acre-feet of drinking water a year — at almost three times the cost of the Imperial water. It’s expensive, but, Cushman says, “It’s also drought-proof. And it sits on the largest reservoir in the world — the Pacific Ocean.”

Matt Jenkins is a High Country News assistant editor.

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