May 5, 2004 - From the June, 2003 issue

San Diego's Perspective On MWD's True Purpose In Contesting The Colorado/IID Water Deal

Metro Investment Report is pleased to reprint an editorial from the San Diego Union-Tribune addressing that jurisdictions view of ongoing negotiations between Metropolitan Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District over California's supply of Colorado River water.

Water lawsuit may have Dickensian result

It's becoming clear why the Metropolitan Water District is fighting the Colorado River water deal, an agreement that would provide Southern Californians with millions of acre-feet of water over the next decade.

MWD President Ron Gastelum may argue that the deal somehow

resembles energy deregulation, or that its environmental impacts are too costly, or that it's an improper use of state water bonds. But the real reason Gastelum doesn't want San Diego County buying Imperial Valley water may be that he thinks the Los Angeles-based MWD can get that water – and a lot more – for free.

The MWD and the U.S. Interior Department are allies in a legal effort that they apparently hope will decide that the Imperial Valley is wasting water. In the next couple of weeks, Interior staff members will issue a study on whether and how much water the Imperial Valley is wasting. Then, that amount would be taken away from Imperial and sent to junior water-rights holders – including the MWD – for free.

But it's not that simple. This intensely complex case can, and will, be endlessly appealed in federal court. At its start, the Imperial Irrigation District delivered a truckload of documents to Interior Department lawyers. The effort to wrest water from the Imperial Valley is a full-employment act for water lawyers; the Imperial Irrigation District has the resources and determination to fight it for years and years. The result may be a drawn-out legal battle that rivals the Chancery Court case in Charles Dickens' "Bleak House."

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Whether the Imperial Valley is wasting some of its vast supply of water is not the issue. The issue is what's the best way to transfer some of that water from desert farms to coastal cities. And the best way, one we know will work if parties that agreed to cooperate will actually cooperate, is the Colorado River water deal.

This deal includes San Diego County buying up to 200,000 acre-feet a year from the Imperial Valley. It also quantifies exactly how much Colorado River water each Southern California user is supposed to get so that more transfers might be possible in the future.

The MWD-Interior transfer method, which relies on pricey lawyers and countless billable hours, is far less sure and far more costly.

The genesis of this legal action was when Interior cut Imperial's water supply because Imperial was dragging its feet on the Colorado River water deal. Now, Imperial is fully supporting the deal and the MWD is dragging its feet. But instead of punishing the MWD, Interior is encouraging MWD by continuing the legal action against Imperial Valley. The zeal for this fight, however, won't be rewarded. At the conclusion of "Bleak House," nothing was solved, but the lawyers got rich. In Imperial Valley v. Interior Department, look for the same result.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton recently launched her Water 2025 initiative to create alliances for heading off future water crises in the West. The Imperial Valley legal action is an inauspicious beginning. It would be much better for California and other Western states if Norton settles the matter quickly, and then pushes for full implementation by all parties of the Colorado River water deal.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.