The California Plan and the Salton Sea
Water from the Colorado River transformed the sagebrush and desert sands of the Imperial, Coachella and Palo Verde valleys into lush, green agricultural fields. The growing season is year-round, the water plentiful and the local economies are based almost entirely on farming. As the waters of the Colorado River allowed the deserts to bloom, they allowed southern California cities like Los Angeles and San Diego to boom. Suburbs, jobs and people followed, and the population within the six counties served by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) grew from 2.8 million in 1930 to more than 17 million today.
Key to this southern California economy is water from the Colorado River. More water; in fact, than California is entitled to under the various agreements and contracts that form the Law of the River. Water that California is now under obligation to cut back under a deal worked out with the other Colorado River Basin states and the federal government.
To reduce the state’s annual draw on the Colorado River from some 5.2 million acre-feet to 4.4 million acre-feet, the state’s basic apportionment, the California parties agreed to implement water conservation measures, initiate agricultural to urban transfers and develop comprehensive groundwater banking and conjunctive use programs. It was California’s commitment to this Colorado River Water Use Plan (commonly called the 4.4 Plan) that ultimately led to an agreement between California and the other six basin states over the use of surplus water. Adopted in the final days of the Clinton administration, the Interim Surplus Guidelines (Guidelines) are designed to provide California with 15 years of greater certainty of surplus water from Lake Mead as the state gradually cuts its water use.
The linchpin of the 4.4 Plan is the historic water conservation-transfer agreement between Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) in which up to 200,000 acre-feet of water will be transferred from Imperial Valley farms to San Diego via a water exchange arrangement with MWD. (An additional 100,000 acre-feet may be transferred from IID to its agricultural neighbor, the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD).)
Every drop of water saved and transferred will help California reduce its overall Colorado River use. But every drop of water saved and transferred is one less drop than would normally flow into the Salton Sea, a vast, saline lake located in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. Formed by the joint forces of man and nature in the early 1900s, agricultural drainage from area farms helps sustain the sea.
The dilemma of how to save the Salton Sea and at the same time implement the transfer has become the overriding issue in the ongoing effort to move the California plan from proposal to reality. Indeed some say the transfer and 4.4 Plan are in danger of collapse, or significant delay – which could mean a loss of surplus water, at least for a time.
“IID is looked at as a source of water for other Colorado River users and to the extent the transfer can be accomplished in a way that is environmentally sound, we would like to proceed,” said Board President Andy Horne. “But if we can’t proceed, this transfer is in real trouble and so is the 4.4 Plan.”
If the transfer deal fails or is delayed, southern California urban water suppliers and users are most at risk because they are last in line when it comes to state’s Colorado River water apportionment. “The risk of being cut off is onerous,” SDCWA General Manager Maureen Stapleton told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “You’re talking about being forced to make up a substantial amount.”
California officials say they have made substantial progress on finalizing the 42 legal and environmental documents necessary to implement the components of the 4.4 Plan. But the original schedule for completion has slipped and much remains to be done to meet the December 2002 deadline to have a final plan in place.
Noting that the transfer faces numerous challenges, Tom Hannigan, director of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), stressed that the 4.4 Plan is too important to California’s future to allow it to fail. “I remain confident we can work these issues out,” he said. “We have to.”
The list of issues to be worked out is long and complex. “It was a major undertaking when we started, but it has only gotten bigger in scope as we went along,” said Dennis Underwood, vice president of Colorado River issues for MWD. “The complexities have been added by external forces – not because we’ve been bogged down administratively.”
Environmental issues top the list, but underlying the debate over how to resolve these issues is the continuing political controversy within the Imperial Valley over the water conservation-transfer agreement itself.
One of the most volatile issues is how farmers should conserve water. The existing contract prohibits fallowing, instead calling for IID farmers to farm the same amount of acreage, and install on-farm improvements such as tailwater recovery systems (financed by the money provided by SDCWA for the water) to conserve water for transfer to San Diego.
But the water that runs off the land is so important to the Salton Sea, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) and Salton Sea Authority officials developed an alternative proposal in which farmers would be paid to fallow a portion of their acreage to make water available for transfer to San Diego. The reductions of inflows to the Salton Sea would be less under a fallowing program than conventional conservation techniques, reducing the transfer’s effect on the sea.
“No fallowing,” however, has long been the rallying cry in the Imperial Valley where there is deep concern over the transfer’s potential third-party impacts on farm workers, tractor dealers and the local economy in general.
As Imperial Valley interests debate fallowing, MWD and farmers in nearby Palo Verde Valley are finalizing an agreement in which farmers would fallow between 7 and 29 percent of their land in any given year, transferring water not used to MWD at a cost of $153 to $206 per acre-foot. MWD officials believe if this deal goes forward, it not only will help MWD maintain a full aqueduct, but help California meet its water reduction requirements.
The question of how much the IID-SDCWA transfer will affect the Salton Sea, and how to mitigate for those effects, is complicated by the fact that the sea’s ecosystem already is deteriorating. Even without the IID transfer, scientists say the sea will eventually become too salty for fish; the transfer will accelerate that process. The issue at hand is how much of the larger Salton Sea restoration effort should be borne by the transfer.
“The Salton Sea will be lost whether transfers occur or not so it’s not fair to say transfers have to bear the brunt of the Salton Sea fix,” said Robert Johnson, regional director of the Bureau’s Lower Colorado Region.
How to pay for these environmental mitigation measures also must be determined. In its agreement with SDCWA, IID placed a $15 million cap on the amount of money it would spend on upfront mitigation (plus an additional $15 million for ongoing mitigation), providing an escape clause from the transfer deal if the costs were greater. There are many indications that the mitigation proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will cost much more, and in order to keep the transfer alive, some of the other California parties and/or the federal government may need to help foot the bill.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, has introduced legislation, HR 2764, capping the transfer’s share of Salton Sea mitigation at $60 million, and providing federal funds to pay for it. But that $60 million would not be available until 2008, according to environmentalists, who also dislike the bill because it would eliminate public review of a habitat conservation plan (HCP) for certain endangered species.
“It’s a terrible bill,” said Michael Cohen, senior research associate for the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security. “It arbitrarily limits the rights of groups to sue, and the time they have to do so, and it relies on an HCP that has been drafted in secret by IID and still has not received any public review.”
Although Hunter’s bill remains stalled in the House Resources Committee, another bill, HR 3208, by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside, that includes a $60 million appropriation for activities to address environmental impacts on the Salton Sea associated with implementation of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) recently cleared the committee 24-18.
Endangered species also are an issue at the state level. The California parties backed legislation to provide the IID-SDCWA water transfer with a waiver from the state’s Fully Protected Species Act, which prohibits the “taking” of certain endangered species. Two of California’s “no take” species – the brown pelican and desert pupfish – are found in the Salton Sea.
A bill amending this law on a statewide basis failed to pass the state Legislature before it adjourned, but can be reconsidered when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Although environmentalists oppose the bill, they have indicated a willingness to negotiate on a Salton Sea-only relaxation of the rule, as provided in AB 1561.
The California parties say passage of the state and federal legislation is crucial to the future of the transfer, especially if they are to make the looming deadlines to complete the studies, legal documents and begin transferring water by January 2003.
Even as officials grapple with Salton Sea-related questions, another environmental issue looms on the horizon – supplying water for the Colorado River Delta. Environmentalists tried, but failed, to gain a reliable source of water for this wetlands area south of the border in the Guidelines. They fear implementation of the 4.4 Plan may further reduce what water the Delta does receive through flood control releases because Lake Mead will be maintained at a lower level.
“The lower Lake Mead is, the lower the possibility we will have flood flow releases out of Lake Mead to the Delta,” said Pam Hyde, executive director of Southwest Rivers. “Are we looking at no water for the Delta?”
This issue of Western Water updates progress on the 4.4 Plan, with a special focus on the Salton Sea restoration/water transfer dilemma. More Colorado River information is available in the Foundation’s recently updated Layperson’s Guide to the Colorado River, written proceedings of Colorado River symposia, back issues of Western Water, and the biannual River Report newsletter, which focuses exclusively on Colorado River issues.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our on-line store and add the November/December 2001 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart. Or, contact us by phone at 916-444-6240.
It’s been said many times by now, but the events of September 11 changed all our lives. Certainly the safety of our drinking water in the United States became a bigger-than-ever concern.
In this issue of Western Water we’ve briefly profiled the events that could affect our water supply in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. (See “In the News.”) In the January/February issue, Writer Gary Pitzer will look at the long-term effects of dealing with water terrorism on our own soil.
On September 11, like you, I woke up to the terrible news about the attack. I had planned to fly to southern California that day to assist Judy Wheatley Maben with our first Southern California Groundwater Tour. After discussions with speakers and participants, we decided to move forward with the tour and continue our efforts to educate people about this important resource. So instead of driving to Sacramento International Airport, Judy and I drove about 500 miles to southern California to carry on the tour. Although 15 of the 55 participants weren’t able to join us because of travel difficulties, we were all glad to be together and concentrate on our work for a few days.
We had never before begun a tour with the Pledge of Allegiance, but now it seemed a meaningful way to begin. For three days we traveled by bus together, keeping in touch with world events, learning about how groundwater is managed in six southern California basins. It’s a story of progressive and innovative thinking. We’ll be having more tours and conferences analyzing groundwater issues in the West, and I hope many of you will join us for these events in 2002.
On that tour after the September 11 attack, I had a chance to think about how through the years, water issues became the focus of my career. Perhaps many of us are questioning our work. Is water an important issue in a country at war? Some things now seem turned upside down. After some thought, I decided that I want to stay engaged with those working to make a difference for improvement of our environment, cities and farms.
So we’ll be following issues like CALFED again soon. In fact recently, while anthrax scares surrounded the capitol, the U.S. Senate debated a bill that would allow federal funds to continue to support the extensive plan for restoring California’s Bay-Delta estuary and assuring a reliable water supply for the state. A House version, HR 3208, recently cleared the House Resources Committee. On a somewhat ironic note, the measure, by Reps. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside, and Cal Dooley, D-Fresno, is named the Western Water Security Enhancement Act. But the name is not in response to September 11; rather it dates back to May when Calvert introduced similar legislation.
Water issues do make a difference on how we live now and how our children will live in the future Western U.S. As good citizens we should join in debates on issues we believe matter. And I think water is one of the most important issues. While a few misguided people want to terrorize and tear things down, we can take this opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to our work to improve our world.
In the News
Water Officials Enact Safety Measures
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon prompted federal and state officials to launch a massive reevaluation of the integrity of the nation’s water storage and delivery systems, given the possibility of further attacks. Congress is in the midst of considering how much to appropriate for beefed up security measures.
“The terrible attacks on Sept. 11 taught us, as a nation, to imagine unimaginable acts against us and take sound, swift steps to make sure they can’t happen,” said Rep. James V. Hansen, R-Utah, chair of the House Resources Committee. “At a time like this, we must take actions to facilitate fully-trained, ongoing security at our federal dams and hydroelectric power plants . . ..”
Officials took immediate steps to heighten security at water facilities in the wake of the attacks. National Guard troops were deployed to Hoover Dam, a key strategic target in the West. U.S. Highway 93, the main road between Phoenix and Las Vegas that crosses the dam, was closed Sept. 11 but reopened two days later to passenger cars and small pickup trucks. A ban on local trucks, buses, motor homes and boat trailers has been gradually eased. In California, many facilities were immediately closed Sept. 11, including Friant Dam. Kirk C. Rodgers, acting regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-Pacific region, asked water contractors in a letter to maintain “a high level of alertness and security at the Reclamation facilities you operate and maintain.”
Security also was increased at State Water Project facilities, and at hundreds of other dams, reservoirs and water conveyance systems throughout California. Increased security patrols, aerial surveillance of the California and Colorado aqueducts by the California Highway Patrol and additional testing of water supplies are ongoing.
Gov. Gray Davis, following a tour of a water treatment plant along the American River Oct. 16, said, “While the possibility that our water supply could be contaminated by a biological or chemical threat remains remote, I want the people of California to be assured that we are on full alert and taking every precaution to safeguard our water.” Scientists and agency officials emphasize it is unlikely that anyone would poison a water system because of the large volume of contaminants needed to cause an impact.
Agencies have taken steps to upgrade electronic security, particularly the amount and type of information available via the World Wide Web. In the days following the attacks, information that could have been used by terrorists against water systems was removed from web sites. The Association of California Water Agencies made several recommendations to its members, including that they review public information posted on web sites, review printed material that includes information about water facilities and operations and prepare board members and staff to respond to public inquiries about security measures.
Legislative proposals to increase security funding emerged immediately after the attacks and will continue throughout next year. One law allows the Bureau to contract with local, state and federal agencies to provide trained and certified law enforcement security at federal dams. On the funding side, proposals have surfaced for the federal government to spend as much as $105 million to develop vulnerability assessments and emergency response plans for water facilities nationwide. “A substantial investment is needed for water infrastructure security [research and development] to address potential vulnerabilities at our nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems,” says the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.