TCS Daily

Thirsty For Solutions

By Michael De Alessi - January 15, 2003 12:00 AM

California's water wars received national attention recently when a potential water transfer from agricultural Imperial Valley to urban San Diego fell through at the last minute, resulting in a major loss of water for all of California.

The transfer deal was an explicit part of an agreement with six other states and the federal government to let California slowly reduce its overtake of Colorado River water. When the deal wasn't reached by its December 31, 2002 deadline, however, that 'soft landing' became a 'hard' one.

Officials in the Imperial Valley felt forced into the deal ever since they realized that they might be held responsible for the fate of the Salton Sea, an inland sea that is crucial bird habitat and that depends on farm runoff to slow its descent into hyper-salinity.

It's been an ugly fight. Imperial Irrigation District board member Bruce Kuhn called Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), "a pig-eyed, gasbag, bureaucratic sack of crap" back in the summer.

California's allotment of Colorado River water is 4.4 million acre feet, but it currently takes an extra 800,000 acre feet or so - enough to supply about 1.6 million households. Rapid population growth in cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, combined with massive federal infrastructure subsidies means that states once willing to let California take more than its share of water from the Colorado River are no longer willing to do so. And the Bush Interior Department has been happy to back them up.

In much of the West, water rights were established on a first-come, first-served basis. Imperial farmers have rights to almost three-quarters of California's Colorado River allotment; four and a half times what the city of Los Angeles uses, and five times what San Diego uses. It is not surprising that they pose ripe targets for thirsty cities.

However, even in Imperial, farmers frequently support water transfers, but only on their own terms. They also have legitimate fears that unless water rights are strengthened in the process, they may lose control over how much water is taken by politically powerful population centers like L.A. and San Diego, no matter how much money is offered in the deal.

Farmers in Imperial currently get their water for about $15 an acre-foot (about 326,000 gallons), and San Diego was offering to pay $258 for that water. Of course, that $258 gets watered down pretty quickly (it would cost money to move the water, and much of the payment would be dispersed throughout the community by local politicians), but it still sounds like an attractive offer - especially since the alternative to selling the water was simply to have it taken away by the Interior Department.

The group that actually deep-sixed the proposed transfer agreement is not the farmers but the Imperial Irrigation District (IID). News reports often refer to the IID and farmers as one and the same, but they aren't. The IID acts as the trustee for the water rights of the farmers, but because it is elected at large, it has a very different bottom line than the farmers. The IID gets elected by redistributing Imperial's water wealth throughout the community as broadly as possible, and by appearing to 'fight the powers that be', even if it means getting nothing for the water that is lost.

Another reason cited by the IID is the Salton Sea. Environmentalists actually oppose water conservation in this case because the Salton Sea relies on runoff water from Imperial Valley's farms. The Sea is already saltier than the ocean, and scientists fear that it will soon be too saline to support fish and birds. The government has so far balked at addressing the problem - and its estimated bill of $1.6 billion - and so ensuring that farm runoff continues into the Sea has become a major environmental issue, and cause for a change of terms from the original transfer agreement.

In that original agreement, farmers were going to come up with the water for San Diego by using less of it on their farms. But that would mean less runoff for the Salton Sea, so leaving farmland to fallow was proposed instead - an idea opposed by the IID because they feared job losses in the community.

There is actually plenty of water to go around in California; it's just not used rationally (or more correctly, it is used rationally but under a set of irrational laws, regulations and subsidies). The first perversity that should be addressed is the water rights trusteeship that exists in Imperial Valley. Many other California irrigation districts are elected on the basis of acreage (water use), and that is why many other water districts in the state are actively working toward ag-urban transfers, rather than against them.

There are also serious flaws in California's water law. First, the notion of 'use-it-or-lose-it' should be changed. Is it any wonder that flood irrigation is the norm in Imperial Valley, when water is cheap but there is no way to sell any surplus? Another problem is the notion of 'beneficial use'. It should be widened to include environmental uses (for example, it is currently illegal for any Colorado River water to flow directly into the Salton Sea).

As much as the Imperial Irrigation District would like to portray itself as a plucky bunch of rural folk playing David vs. Goliath, it is really a plucky bunch of politicos playing Russian roulette with Imperial's most important asset - its water.

This mess appears headed to court. When that happens and Imperial inevitably loses, the precedent will be set for large cities to simply take the water they need, regardless of the effects on agriculture and the environment. This would be a terrible loss.

It is crucial for the health and the wealth of the West that water is allotted for agriculture, for the environment, and for urban uses. If these competing demands are simply left to political powers without the discipline of the market, then one of the two most important aspects of the West - its economy or its environment - will suffer irreparably. The surest way to avoid that is to free up water markets by de-politicizing water rights and vesting them with agricultural and environmental interests.

Michael De Alessi is director of natural resource policy for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation.

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