Has peace finally come to the Colorado River?

Second generation Coachella, Calif., farmer John Powell Jr. who spent two years on the negotiating team that hammered a pact known as Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) signed in early October, hopes peace is at hand.

Seven years of negotiations coupled with federal government threats to cut off some of California's water supplies from the Colorado led to the “historic” pact involving Imperial Irrigation District (IID), Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and the State of California to divvy up a questionable supply of Colorado River water.

“It should have been done decades ago,” Powell told a workshop at WG's 78th annual meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Powell is Western Growers vice chairman. His family owns Peter Rabbit Farms in Coachella and he admitted for the first time ever the dispute over Colorado River water almost dried up the water supply this summer to his family's farm that has been producing high value crops in the desert for more than 50 years.

The QSA has been signed, but apparently very few people have seen the final document and that leaves doubts for many as to whose ox got gored, and if peace has truly come to the Colorado.

Imperial Valley farmers are sure it was their ox that was gored. They have already filed legal action, and more challenges are likely.

“Where is IID in this agreement?” asked long time Imperial Valley farmer Howard Elmore and former WG chairman at the seminar. “Have you seen the agreement? Is there a smoking gun?”

His questions were directed at Powell, panel moderator Steve Hall of the Association of California Water Agencies and Adan Ortega, MWD vice president for external affairs. They had no answer because they said they had not seen the final agreement.

Elmore and many other Imperial Valley farmers are incensed that about 10 percent of the Imperial Valley's 3 million acre feet entitlement will be transferred to urban users and for restoration of the Salton Sea. To get that water, farmland must be idled and farmers do not like that idea. And, they have had very little say in the matter. Many others in the valley that is almost totally dependent economically on agriculture also are not happy.

The majority of IID's board members are non-farmers, and according to the Imperial Group farmers have been ignored in this process.

Unlike many irrigation districts, IID supplies water to municipalities and is a power generator. Therefore, board members are elected by a majority of the valley's residents. Even though farmers are the biggest users of the water, they are a minority-voting block.

Palo Verde Irrigation District, which as struck a deal with MWD for transferring water, is made up exclusively of farmers. They have agreed to a rotating, fallowing program that allows them to idle certain each year in return for cash payments in exchange for water for Los Angeles.

Feared losses

According to the Imperial Group, if these agreements are implemented, the result will be reduced agricultural production in the valley, a loss of jobs in agriculture and other businesses, and a reduction in the value of the Valley's primary asset; land with attached water rights, whether it is used for agriculture or other development.

Fallowing will put many farmers out of business, and will restrict development opportunities for the Imperial Valley, according to the farmers. In addition, the agreements transfer not only water, but also at least $300 million out of Imperial County — about $700 per developable acre.

With 17 million people in affluent Southern California just over the mountain from Imperial Valley, one of the most sparsely populated and poorer areas of the state, IID has little choice but to accept the pact. It was either take the best deal it could under federal threat to reduce its water supplies or see Southern California take the water by political force. IID is now soliciting farmer bids to fallow ground.

Lawsuit filed

Members of the Imperial Group announced they have filed a lawsuit on behalf of all landowners and purveyors of water in the Imperial Valley.

The complaint asked the Imperial County Superior Court to find that certain parts of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) are invalid because IID is currently not properly managing the water it diverts from the Colorado River on behalf of the water users in the Imperial Valley.

In addition, the suit claims that parts of the QSA impose an unconstitutional taxing burden on landowners of approximately $700 per acre to finance the restoration of the Salton Sea.

Finally the lawsuit asks that if the QSA is allowed to go forward landowners be compensated for their loss. Landowners estimate the losses created by implementation of the QSA may be as high as $25 billion for all the citizens of the Imperial Valley.

In related news, Judge Raymond Cota granted the IID's motion to dismiss an earlier validation lawsuit on technical grounds. That earlier lawsuit challenged decisions made by IID before the QSA was adopted. The challenges in the dismissed suit are now covered by the lawsuit filed by the Imperial Group.

The IID's own lawsuit filed recently requests affirmation of their QSA position by the court.

No decision has yet been made whether to appeal this recent ruling by Judge Cota.

Also related to this issue, the county of Imperial has filed a lawsuit challenging the QSA on environmental grounds.

The legal challenges may not be the biggest issue in dividing up the river. The river itself may be the deciding factor because in all likelihood, there is not enough water to meet all entitlements. Sheldon Jones, former head of the Arizona department of agriculture and now executive vice president of the Arizona Agribusiness Council, said it did not take long for the experts who parceled out 16.5 million acre feet of the river to the seven river basin states in the early part of the last century to realize that they may use a pie that was much to large. There is already a shortfall of 700,000 acre feet and historical records indicate that a 20-year flow have been as low as 10.9 million acre feet, according to Jones.

“The river may be over allocated,” he said.

Hall predicted that in the future there will water transfers between upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah) where population growth is slower and crops have lower value and lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada where populations are growing rapidly and crop values are higher.

The Colorado River peace treaty signed in October 2003 may be as valid as the treaties America signed with many of the American Indians in the 1800s.

Here is an overview of the Quantification Settlement Agreement from the San Diego County Water Authority:

Overview

This historic agreement provides California a transition period to implement water transfers and supply programs that will reduce California's over-dependence upon the Colorado River and reduce the state's draw to its 4.4 million acre-foot basic annual apportionment.

The QSA commits the state to a restoration path for the Salton Sea and provides full mitigation for these water supply programs. The QSA assures California up to 75 years of stability in its Colorado River water supplies.

The QSA allows renewed access to surplus water, when available, under the federal Interim Surplus Guidelines. For 2004, urban Southern California would be entitled to receive 260,000 acre-feet of surplus water.

Salton Sea

The state of California has committed to a restoration path for the Salton Sea by providing $20 million this year to fund the development of a restoration plan by 2006. Under the QSA, the state of California purchases up to 1.6 million acre-feet of water from IID for sale to MWD, generating up to $300 million for the restoration program.

Over the life of the QSA programs, more than 30 million acre-feet moves from primarily agricultural use to primarily urban use.

Major features

  • Quantification of IID's Colorado River entitlement at 3.1 million acre-feet annually.

  • Quantification of CVWD's Colorado River entitlement at 330,000 acre-feet.

Quantification Settlement Agreement Water transfers:

  • IID-SDCWA transfer, ramping up to 200,000 acre-feet per year from IID to SDCWA for up to 75 years.

  • IID-MWD transfer of up to 110,000 acre-feet per year from IID to MWD.

  • IID-CVWD transfers ramping up to 103,000 acre-feet per year from IID to CVWD.

  • Potential water transfers between 25,000 and 111,000 acre-feet annually from the Palo Verde Irrigation District to MWD.

  • Lining of the All-American and Coachella canals, with the 77,700 acre-feet of water produced annually going to the SDCWA for 110 years.

  • 6,000 acre-feet per year of additional canal-lining water provided to the San Luis Rey Settlement Parties to implement a 1988 federal law that resolved decades-old litigation.

The State Legislature authorized $200 million from the state to help pay for construction of the canal-lining projects. The projects are also eligible for $20 million in Proposition 50 funding.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com