California strikes a water truce

A landmark water deal could bring peace on the Colorado River -- and money for the Salton Sea

  • Stella Mendoza, an Imperial Irrigation District board member, voted, "Hell, no," on the deal to sell water to San Diego. She was outvoted


One of the West’s most volatile water fights has finally been settled. On Oct. 2, California’s Imperial Irrigation District agreed to the largest farm-to-city water transfer in the nation’s history. The district’s board of directors voted to sell up to 200,000 acre-feet per year to San Diego, and the final piece of a complex puzzle fell into place.

“There’s too many people that agree that this is the thing to do,” says board member Bruce Kuhn, who cast the deciding vote. “For the first time in 50 years, we have (Southern California’s major urban and agricultural water districts), the federal government, the state of California and the other six Colorado River Basin states all in agreement.”

For half a century, California has used more than its legal entitlement of the Colorado River. But since the mid-1990s, pressed by the six other states that share the river, California has been lining up a broad package of water deals that will allow it to reshuffle water within its borders and skinny down to its legal cut of the Colorado (HCN, 9/16/02: The Royal Squeeze). The last, absolutely crucial piece of that package was convincing Imperial — which has rights to one-fifth of the water in the Colorado — to sell some of its water to San Diego.

The irrigation district clung desperately to that water, and overran the original Dec. 31, 2002, deadline for finalizing the deal. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton turned up the heat on New Year’s Eve by cutting off California’s access to “surplus” Colorado River water — enough for 1.6 million households — and touching off nine months of intense negotiations (HCN, 1/20/03: California's water binge skids to a halt). Now that the deal is final, Norton has given California access to 13 more years’ worth of surplus Colorado River water, which will buy the state time to figure out how to live within its limits.

“This has been something sought after since (the construction of Hoover Dam in) 1931,” says Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bennett Raley. And, amazingly, the long-suffering Salton Sea — one of the last havens for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway — has been dealt a promising hand.

Water into gold

If it were simple, it wouldn’t be a California water deal, but, in rough form, the agreement looks like this: The Imperial Irrigation District will sell up to 200,000 acre-feet a year to San Diego, for as much as $50 million (an acre-foot is enough water for a family of four for a year). San Diego will kick in about $90 million to finish lining two major Imperial-area canals with concrete, therefore getting another 77,700 acre-feet of water that now leaks out of the canals. The deal also moves water to the powerful Metropolitan Water District, to the Coachella Valley Water District, and to the San Luis Rey Indian Tribe.

Conservationists have long feared that such a deal would kill the Salton Sea, a 381-square-mile lake created by a blowout in an irrigation canal in 1905. The sea is fed by the wastewater that flows off Imperial Valley farmers’ fields, so moving water from Imperial to San Diego would significantly reduce flows to the sea — making it salty enough to poison the fish that provide food for migrating birds.

But the water deal contains an ace in the hole for the Salton Sea. Imperial will sell another 100,000 acre-feet a year to the California Department of Water Resources; the state, in turn, will tack $75 to the cost of each acre-foot and resell it to the Metropolitan Water District. The proceeds will help pay to make the sea more hospitable for fish and migratory birds.

That’s more than the sea has had going for it in a long time. With or without the transfer, the sea, which has no outlet, would eventually have become too salty to support fish. Joe Caves, an Audubon consultant who took part in the negotiations, says “just trying to pour additional water into the sea was not a viable long-term strategy; you can’t put enough water in to dilute it. The only way to save the sea was to reconfigure it.”

“Reconfiguring” would mean diking off portions of the sea and creating smaller, but higher-quality habitat — a project that could cost anywhere from $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

Worth its salt?

It’s clear that the money from the Imperial-San Diego deal — between $330 million and $500 million — falls far short of what will be needed to remake the Salton Sea. But for the sea’s champions, it’s still a major victory.

“We went from zero to $400 million in the course of a year,” says Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. The rest of the money, she says, will have to come from state water bonds and the federal government.

That won’t be easy. The Salton Sea is potentially competing for funding with the $8.7 billion CALFED program, designed to restore the San Francisco Bay Delta (HCN, 9/30/02: Delta Blues). Last year, California voters passed Proposition 50, a $3.4 billion water bond; with the economy in the tank, it’s going to take a lot of convincing to get them to do it again.

“We have this ongoing problem of rehabilitating the sea’s image in the eyes of the public,” says Delfino. Then again, it’s been done before, when conservationists rallied Californians in the 1980s to demand the protection of Mono Lake, on the east side of the Sierra. “Mono Lake wasn’t exactly thought of as being this beautiful place, either.”

The author is an HCN assistant editor.

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