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Environment Report: Water Authority Extends Controversial Deal by a Decade

Western officials consider the best way to share the Colorado River long-term and more in our biweekly roundup of the region’s environmental news.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

The San Diego County Water Authority extended by 10 years a multibillion-dollar deal it has to buy water from the Imperial Irrigation District.

That deal remains the largest water purchase of its kind in the United States. The Water Authority began talking about the deal in 1995, shortly after a major drought hit the state. The Water Authority pays Imperial County farmers to stop using some of the Colorado River water they have rights to and, in turn, San Diego gets long-term access to enough water for roughly 1.6 million city folk.

The deal is one of several reasons that San Diego’s water rates are among the highest in the country. It’s also unclear how much the water will cost over the next several decades, in part because those costs depend on things beyond the Water Authority’s control.

That’s largely because the Water Authority can’t physically access its Imperial County water without paying another fee to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which owns the only system of pipelines that extends from coastal Southern California to the Colorado River.

Earlier this year, the Water Authority lost a long-running court battle to substantially lower those fees and remains concerned that they will continue to go up. For years, the Water Authority has talked about building its own pipeline to Imperial County if those fees get too high.

The deal is one of the most controversial things to happen in Southern California water politics. It’s been the subject of a handful of lawsuits since 1995 and caused a rift between San Diego and Metropolitan, its largest water supplier, that has no real end in sight.

The Water Authority’s vote to extend the deal was perfunctory, at least in public. For about two hours on Dec. 7, the board talked in closed session about the deal. The Water Authority justified the private discussions because some of its litigation with Metropolitan is still ongoing.

“So, as you can imagine, a good portion of the discussion is privileged and it’s a closed-session item,” said Dan Denham, the head of the Water Authority’s Colorado River Program.

Then, in public, after a short presentation by General Manager Maureen Stapleton on the pros and cons of the deal, the board voted unanimously to extend it from 2037 to 2047.

Arizona the Latest to Stir Colorado River Tensions

Water officials from across the West met last week to talk about how to manage the Colorado River, which supplies water for 40 million people. They met, as they do every year, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Over the past two years, officials in California, Nevada and Arizona have been trying to figure out how to continue sharing a dwindling and increasingly unpredictable river that has been in drought for much of the past two decades.

In the past, internal California politics were an obstacle to a drought deal, but most of that has been worked out. Now, internal Arizona politics are holding things up.

Oddly, Arizona likely has the most to lose if a deal isn’t signed: Under current law, California has first dibs on much of the river’s water. Those rights are so secure that the Central Arizona Project — a 336-mile series of canals and pipelines that brings river water to 80 percent of Arizona’s population — would have to run dry before California loses a single drop.

That said, it’s hard to imagine letting Arizona go thirsty while California goes unscathed, so for the first time ever, California is offering to cede water to Arizona.

Arizona, however, can’t agree on what it wants, much to the frustration of officials in other states, including Kevin Kelley, the general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, which has rights to roughly a sixth of the river’s water.

Seated together on a stage, Kelley told the Grand Canyon State’s top water official, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, that he has to “somehow manage the internecine disputes that have broken out” in Arizona.

In Other News

  • Mother Jones looks back on “Climategate,” an incident involving the hacking and release of emails from climate researchers. The magazine cleverly compares that 2009 scandal to the coordinated attack on the Democratic Party during last year’s presidential election. There’s no clear evidence the hack was carried out by Russia, which is heavily reliant on fossil fuel sales and has incentive to delay climate change regulations. But the effect of the piece is to show how easily media can be manipulated. It also reminds us that for a brief period, the public’s confidence in climate science was fairly high. If you want to read more about that era, there’s a great 2010 New Yorker story on the brief moment when major climate change legislation seemed possible, though it was then botched not only by forces within the Republican Party but because of serious political missteps by the new Obama administration.
  • In a new piece on the scandal surrounding the premature closing of the San Onofre nuclear plant, Jeff McDonald focuses on a meeting between Gov. Jerry Brown and power company officials. The timing of the meeting is interesting because it happened several weeks before a now infamous meeting in Poland, where a deal was hashed out to put ratepayers on the hook for corporate mistakes.
  • The Union-Tribune looks at Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s decision to clean up the San Diego River, which has long been burdened by trash but now may be the site of an exodus of homeless people from other sweeps downtown.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Dan Denham’s job title. He is the Water Authority’s assistant general manager.

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