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Solution to Water Woes Threatened From Many Sides

Solution to Water Woes Threatened From Many Sides

By HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

A confluence of factors is drying up hopes that L.A. can secure a stable future water supply anytime soon.

From Sacramento to Washington to the remote corners of California, the news is not good, threatening Angelenos with price hikes and more conservation measures as early as next spring.

In Washington, more than a billion dollars in federal aid to fix California’s crucial water nexus east of San Francisco Bay is in jeopardy. Nearly a billion more dollars in state funds for that same water fix is on track to be defeated at the polls next month.

In the remote Imperial Valley and in Los Angeles, negotiations are lurching along as officials from around the state try to break an impasse that threatens to cut off 15 percent of Southern California’s water supply on Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, a local company’s plan to store water in the Mojave Desert was killed last week by water officials after environmental opposition emerged. This project would have further secured Southern California’s water supplies in dry years.

Topping it all off is a severe drought throughout the Southwest that shows no sign of easing. If it continues into the next rainy season, as some predictions call for, water rates throughout Southern California are almost certain to increase and conservation measures will be implemented as water agencies are forced to rely more on distant and expensive sources of water.

“The stars definitely are not in alignment right now on these crucial water supply issues,” said Stephen Erie, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

The impact from these difficulties could fall first on developers.

Under a pair of bills passed in 2001 and taking effect this January, any development with more than 500 residential units must have certification from the local water agency guaranteeing water supplies for that development over the next 20 years. In the L.A. area, projects such as Ahmanson Ranch, Newhall Ranch and the new Tejon Ranch could be held up if the water supply guarantees aren’t forthcoming.

“That will give opponents of these major projects another piece of ammunition to delay or stop them entirely,” said Adan Ortega, spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District, the regional water wholesaler. “If these water supply measures don’t come through for us in the next few weeks, we will not be in a position to provide a water supply guarantee to our member water agencies beyond two or three years, let alone 20 years.”

To what extent the problems turn into a crisis depends on the progress that’s made in the next several days on two key fronts: securing the billions needed to fix the San Francisco Bay-Sacramento River Delta region and negotiating a gradual drawdown of California’s water intake from the Colorado River.

Protecting the Bay-Delta

In all, at least $10 billion will be needed over the next decade to stop saltwater intrusion into the Bay-Delta area, boost dam capacities in the water-rich northern part of the state and protect salmon and other endangered species. The first $3 billion down payment on these projects was to have been provided this year: $2 billion from the federal government and nearly $1 billion from a state water quality bond measure on the November ballot.

But as of late last week, the chances looked slim for both these federal and state components. In Washington, two appropriations bills were stalled by partisan bickering, much of it on an unrelated matter. In the House, a $1.2 billion funding measure by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Riverside, was tied up by a dispute over whether contractors on these water projects should be forced to pay their workers prevailing wages under the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act. The Senate bill has faced opposition from taxpayer groups concerned about the cost, and from environmental groups concerned about the environmental impacts of some of the projects.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, author of the Senate bill, scaled it back to $800 million over three years from $1.6 billion. But legislative aides tracking the bill said even the more modest version was facing trouble, primarily because of competing budget demands.

“Barring a major last-minute breakthrough, the federal funding for the Bay-Delta may end up being more in the $30 million range for the next fiscal year, as opposed to something 10 or 20 times that amount,” one legislative aide said.

With the state facing a $24 billion deficit, water officials were counting on passage of a $3.4 billion water bond on the November ballot. The bond measure, Proposition 50, would allocate $825 million toward the Bay-Delta fix and hundreds of millions of dollars more for related projects.

But in a September poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, Proposition 50 garnered only 44 percent support. Typically, support for bond measures erodes during the length of the campaign, meaning supporters have an uphill battle ahead of them.

Meanwhile, this past weekend, an intense round of negotiations began on another crucial part of Southern California’s water supply, from the Colorado River. The state has until Dec. 31 to implement a plan on how to wean itself from using more than its historical allotment of 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water a year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water required to cover one acre to a depth of one foot. It’s equivalent to 326,00 gallons, or the amount of water used by two typical Southern California families in and around their home for a year.)

Farmers’ concerns

The big holdup centers on the Imperial Valley, which has surplus water. For years, the water-poor San Diego area has been trying to negotiate a transfer of some 200,000 acre-feet of water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego. But environmentalists objected to the diversion because of the potential harm it could do to the Salton Sea, which traditionally absorbs the excess water.

The solution on the table is to let some of the farmland in the Imperial Valley lay idle, or fallow; some of that unused water could then flow to the Salton Sea, allowing the water transfer to go ahead. But farmers and farm workers have balked at this plan and are holding out for compensation.

Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, has been brokering the on-again, off-again negotiations between the parties, which were due to restart again this past Saturday (Oct. 12). Hertzberg has set a deadline of this Tuesday (Oct. 15) to reach an agreement, which would allow 10 weeks to make sure the agreement passes legal and environmental muster.

“This is a classic case of urban versus environmental interests and it’s incredibly complex,” Hertzberg said. “We’re dealing with issues like how do we promote worker retraining and attracting new industry to the Imperial Valley to lessen their dependence on farming. And the farmers want to be sure they don’t face additional environmental liability.”

If an agreement cannot be reached in time, officials with the Department of the Interior have indicated that they will act on Jan. 1 to force California back to its 4.4 million-acre-feet allotment.

Ironically, this move will have no immediate impact. The drought plaguing the Southwest has the Colorado River flowing at its lowest level in nearly 50 years.

As a result of this year’s drought, the MWD and other water agencies will likely be forced to draw on more expensive water from northern California. If the drought drags on into the spring, L.A. will begin to feel the impact, Erie said. That’s when higher water rates and more reliance on conservation measures would come into play.

It’s precisely to avoid this type of scenario that the MWD formulated a plan with Santa Monica-based Cadiz Inc. to store up to 2 million acre-feet of surplus Colorado River water in an aquifer underneath Cadiz-owned land in the Mojave Desert.

But last week, the MWD board voted to kill the Cadiz water storage plan because of environmental opposition.

“The failure of the Cadiz plan means that Southern California will rely that much more on imported water, and we now see how precarious that can be,” Erie said.

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