A layperson's guide to the water transfer agreements

What the “Babbitt Initiatives” mean for Southern California

by Philip R. Pryde


n December of 2000, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt brokered an agreement between Southern California water agencies, and the other states that use Colorado River water, that dealt with how that water would be divided up in the future. There are some significant changes in this agreement, and they have implications that Southern Californians, in particular, should be aware of.

    There are four key pieces to the puzzle. First, California has a legal right to a very specific amount of water from the Colorado River (called its “firm allocation”), and we will eventually have to use no more than that amount. Second, the Colorado River Aqueduct is presently the only means available to convey water from the Colorado River to Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, and most of Riverside counties. Third, both the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) and the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which wholesale Colorado River water within southern California, have signed agreements with the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to transfer conserved water from Imperial County to coastal Southern California. MWD is currently transferring about 100,000 acre-feet per year under a 1988 agreement; SDCWA signed a transfer agreement in 1998, but is still completing the environmental review process and has yet to receive any water. Fourth, there's the Salton Sea (35 miles long and 15 miles wide at it's widest point, and a significant wildlife habitat and hazard) to think about. Let's look at the implications of each of these in more detail.

First: the allocation


    Almost all southern California water agencies purchase some or in many cases, a lot of Colorado River water from the MWD. San Diego is about 70% to 95% dependent on this source, depending on how wet a given winter may be, both in the Rocky Mountains and in Northern California.

    California's firm allocation is 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water a year. How much is that? An acre-foot is 325,000 gallons; imagine a football field covered with a foot of water, that would be about an acre-foot of this essential resource. Your family uses about a half of an acre-foot a year.

    Most of California's allocation of Colorado River water goes to agricultural uses in Imperial and Riverside counties. The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) has a firm right to only 550,000 acre-feet a year, about an eighth of the state's allotment. This isn't nearly enough to meet the needs of millions of Southern Californians, but fortunately MWD also has rights to the 100,000 acre-feet per year of transfer water, as well as another 662,000 acre-feet in years when there is surplus water in the river. Because other states in the Colorado River basin have not been not using their full allocations, to date there has always been additional water available that California could use (the Secretary of the Interior makes this determination annually).

    But that supplemental allocation to MWD is in addition to California's firm allotment, which means that California has been taking in excess of 5 million acre-feet annually for many years now. Other states in the Colorado basin, which are today using more and more of their own allotments, have been applying pressure to get California to scale back to using only its firm allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet a year. This has been termed the “4.4 Plan,” and is the cornerstone of the new agreements that Secretary Babbitt brokered.

Second: the aqueduct


    The Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA) was one of the engineering wonders of the world when it was built in the 1930s. It was designed to convey a little over 1.2 million acre-feet of water a year to Southern California. Not at all coincidentally, this figure is just slightly more than the sum of MWD's firm and supplemental allocations (550,000 plus 662,000 acre-feet/year). As noted above, it is the only way to get the water to coastal southern California; right now, it's the only game in town. For many years, it has been running full, or close to it. All 1.2 million acre-feet are being used to support southern California's economy.

    But under the 4.4 Plan and the just approved Interim Surplus Guidelines, MWD will be limited, after a 15-year transition period, to its basic allocation of 550,000 acre-feet plus the 100,000 acre-feet of transfer water. This means that, unless some other source of water can be found, the CRA in 2016 will be running at about half of its capacity. And in such a scenario, many local water districts would be hurting. But not to despair, help is on the way.

Third: the transfer agreements


    As mentioned, MWD has already implemented an agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to transfer 100,000 acre-feet of conserved water to coastal Southern California, and the SDCWA has an agreement with IID to transfer up to 200,000 acre-feet of water. These agreements are an integral part of the 4.4 Plan. The way the SDCWA agreement would work is as follows. Individual farmers will voluntarily reduce water use by changing on-farm practices, such as installing drip irrigation, laser-leveling their fields, or installing water pump-back systems. These methods, paid for by coastal Southern Californians, conserve water by reducing the amount applied to the fields, or the amount of runoff leaving them. Either way, less water is used to grow the same crops, and the saved water can be transferred westward.

    Water can also be saved by improving the efficiency of the IID canal system. Many of the canals in the Imperial Valley were constructed long ago and utilize antiquated water control technologies. The result is excess quantities of water flowing through the system that are not really needed. IID is planning water delivery system improvements (such as automated gates, flow control devices, and better metering) to reduce the amount of water flowing through the canals. They also have plans to capture any excess water in one part of the system for transfer to areas that need it. In all these ways, less unnecessary water will be flowing through the canals. This also constitutes water that is conserved and that can be transferred.

    At first glance, this looks like a good deal for everyone. Although the Colorado River Aqueduct is running full at present, and may continue to do so until 2016, there would be room in the aqueduct for this water once the “4.4 Plan” begins operation. And this water, in the amount of perhaps 300,000 acre-feet after the SDCWA/IID transfer is implemented (maybe more than that later on), would be very much needed. But there could be some problems.

What's wrong with this picture?


    In the long run, hopefully nothing. But there could be some significant short-term challenges to overcome. An initial problem was a reluctance on the part of MWD to let the San Diego County Water Authority transport its conserved IID water through the Colorado River Aqueduct (at least at a reasonable price). This problem, however, has hopefully been resolved, by means of a November 1998 agreement that will let SDCWA move its conserved water through the aqueduct for the next 30 years. After that, either the agreement will need to be renegotiated, or SDCWA will need to have constructed its own aqueduct.

Water immigration


    A second problem is that the primary canal, called the All-American canal, runs for part of its length directly along the Mexican border. Some of the water that “leaks” out of it therefore drifts southward across the border. This unintended groundwater bonanza is viewed by Mexico as “their” water, and in fact it is currently being mined, via wells on the Mexican side, for use in the thirsty Mexicali Valley. If this portion of the canal is lined, then this source of water on the Mexican side goes away. Litigation, or at least the threat of it, seems inevitable, even though the US State Department considers the matter closed. Water lawyers will be lamenting this unhappy situation all the way to the bank, probably for a great many years.

Preserving the Salton Sea

    The third problem is equally as ominous as the second, possibly more so. It is generally accepted that a portion of the excess water from farmers' fields, as well as water that flows unused through the various Imperial and Coachella Valley canals, sooner or later finds its way, via either groundwater routes or surface drainage canals, to the Salton Sea. Exactly how much this flow will change with the implementation of the water conservation and transfer measures has not yet been quantified, but could be considerable. This water is obviously an important component in maintaining the surface level of the Sea. If these conservation improvements result in less water making it to the Salton Sea, the Sea's level will drop. In the absence of some sort of remedy for this problem (and none has been agreed upon to date), part of the present bottom of the Sea will become exposed shoreline. These exposed bottomlands will contain salts and other undesirable chemicals. There is concern that the frequent high winds in the valley could create harmful “dust-salt storms,” similar (but perhaps smaller in scale) to those now plaguing the area downwind from dried-up Owens Lake. Also, wildlife habitat and shoreline developments could be adversely impacted.

    Presently, even before the transfer measures are implemented, Salton Sea managers face the challenges of stabilizing its salinity level, stabilizing the shoreline, and greatly reducing the die-offs of fish and water birds. The transfers will incrementally increase these challenges. To address and remedy these problems, a considerable amount of mitigation money will be needed. Congress already anticipated reductions in water inflow to the Sea when it passed Public Law 105-372 (the Salton Sea Reclamation Act) in 1998. This law authorizes the restoration of the Sea to healthier conditions in a way that will respond to future likely reductions in inflow, whatever their cause. But only a limited amount of money was appropriated towards this goal.

    If curing all of the ills of the Salton Sea were to be viewed as appropriate mitigation for the water transfers, the price tag would be steep, probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The IID is willing to pay a fair share of the mitigation costs, but not all, and has capped what it is willing to contribute at $30 million. SDCWA (or SDCWA plus MWD) probably will balk at the nine digit number, as well. That only leaves Congress, a very iffy fiscal partner (what Congressman in Michigan or Georgia feels strongly about the Salton Sea, or even heard of it, for that matter?). Thus, if the fate of the Salton Sea is tied to the water transfer programs, the Sea becomes a major factor in the success of the whole “4.4 Plan” and of Southern California's water future as well.

    It is to be hoped that the “Babbitt Initiative,” including the water transfer agreements, will be realized. Southern California's residents, agriculture, and commerce will depend on its success. But there are still hurdles to be overcome. It is not too soon to start convincing elected officials that these issues are important, and that adequate funding to resolve the problems must be forthcoming. It could be a hard sell. We need to get started.

    Philip Pryde is a past chair of the long-range planning committee of the San Diego County Water Authority, and a member of Audubon-California's task force on the Salton Sea. He extends appreciation to personnel at the SDCWA and other agencies for reviewing the draft of this article for accuracy.