January 16, 2004

Water Transfer Not Enough, Water Conservation is the Key

By Perlita R. Dicochea

The recent Water Transfer Agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), the State of California and the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) as well as other southern California water agencies has constituents on both sides of the California/Baja California border deeply concerned about possible environmental and economic impacts. To be certain, there are many unknowns regarding the agreement’s economic outcomes for the Imperial and Mexicali Valleys. In addition, state and local authorities and environmental activists insist that conservation measures undergo further implementation throughout San Diego County.

In a telephone press conference in October 2003, Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton, Water Master for the Lower Colorado River Basin, stated that the agreement is historic as it is the “largest agriculture to urban water transfer in history.”

The water transfer agreement passed in October 2003 allows the San Diego County Water Authority to purchase up to 200,000 acres of water from the Imperial Irrigation District via the State of California and is heralded by local, state, and federal officials as the first step toward long-term resolution to Southern California’s water needs.

The State of California takes on the role of a water broker as it will purchase the water from the IID, the primary holder of Colorado River water rights, and resell this water to southern California water agencies.

Secretary of the Interior Norton, who signed the agreement on October 15, 2003, said that the agreement ensures California will receive no more than its legal allotment of 4.4 million acre-feet of water. In the past, California has used up to 800,000 million acre-feet of water more that its entitled allotment.

“The benefits of this agreement are shared throughout all of the 7 states (of the Lower Colorado River Basin) because of the long-term predictability about the availability of water,” Secretary of the Interior Norton said.

Celeste Cantu, executive director of California’s Water Resources Control Board, agrees that implementation is a crucial aspect of the future success of the mandate.

“But it is just one piece of the puzzle,” Cantu admitted. “I don’t want people to think that we are done, that the water issue in southern California is behind us.”

The water deal also stipulates that the State, the San Diego Water Authority, and the IID contribute a share of the profits to restore the Salton Sea and its surrounding environment. Overall profits could reach up to $300 million for Salton Sea restoration.

In an October 2003 NPR segment, Tom Kirk of the Salton Sea Authority explains that the millions for the Salton Sea are necessary because the decrease of water use for agricultural fields in the Imperial Valley means less agricultural runoff into the canals and rivers that flow into the Salton Sea. After 15 years, the Salton Sea is predicted to decrease by 30%. The repercussions of a much smaller lake include increased air quality problems such as those experienced in the Owens Valley and endangerment of the sea’s plant and animal life.

In order to garner enough water to ship to San Diego and at the same time ensure that the Salton Sea does not incur excessive loss of water from decreased agricultural runoff, the Imperial Valley must invest in conservation and fallowing, whereby farmland is taken out of production, during the first 15-year phase of the process.

Andy Horn, one of five Board of Directors of the IID, said that this year Imperial Valley landowners submitted proposals to take their fields out of production in exchange for money. Horn explained that the formula used in the transfer process apportions 4 acre-feet of water for San Diego and 2 acre-feet of water for the Salton Sea. Six acre-feet of water equals one fallowed acre of farmland.

Other critical aspects of the puzzle include heightened water conservation efforts as well as water reclamation projects, which recycle more water for irrigation use. In particular, the American Canal will be relined with funds from the San Diego Water Authority. The Imperial Valley is to increase its water-use efficiency by 300,000 acre-feet over the next 15 years.

Imperial Valley Concerns

Andy Horn, one of two votes in opposition to the measure, said he feels obligated to his community to vote against a deal in the face of uncertainties about the repercussions. Two committees, the Local Entity and the Economist Panel, have been set up in an attempt to address possible negative outcomes including unemployment increases and other third party impacts such as industries related to farmland production.

Some residents of the Imperial Valley view the wait-and-see water transfer process as highly risky and worrisome.

Horn explains, “The 15 year period is arbitrary. After 15 years of fallowing, either we have a (Salton Sea) restoration plan that works or we don’t. All we can do is implement this plan and then see what happens.”

“We were up against a lot of powerful people who were determined to get our water. We believe we made a decent deal. Although there is some concern in our community and others resent that we were pressured,” Horn insisted.

Retired farmer James Taylor, Imperial Valley resident and a participant of a now disbanded regional committee organized several years ago for initial deliberations on a water transfer deal, describes the situation this way: “We have a source and San Diego is a sink. The sink keeps getting larger and no one recognizes that the source is limited. How can we guarantee allotments with a finite resource?”

Taylor added, “What will happen in the next major drought? Who will be guaranteed their share of the Colorado then?”

Horn pointed out similar issues stating, “The real concern is that (Southern California) will be back for more. But right now (Imperial Valley) relies on the rest of the water for farming.”

Some landowners like the transfer agreement. “(Farmers who fallow) will make more money selling the water than farming especially since agriculture is such a marginal business,” Horn explained.

On the other hand, the recent agreement might draw non-agricultural businesses to the Imperial Valley as there are businesses looking for places where water is not as scarce. “Even with the transfer, the Imperial Valley has significant water rights for crops and other types of businesses,” Horn assessed.

Meanwhile, Imperial County has filed three lawsuits, the latest in mid-November against the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority. As reported in the San Diego Daily Transcript, Imperial County filed one complaint because the transfer agreement does not incorporate a review of the environmental plan in the first 15 years of the agreement and allegedly violates the California Environmental Quality Act. While Imperial County’s initial lawsuits have been dismissed, the legal complaints could potentially undermine the water deal.

A press release issued by the SDCWA in mid-December announced that the first 10,000 acre-feet of water were delivered to the San Diego County in December 2003. The transfer will increase to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year in 2022. The deal has an initial term of 45 years and can be renewed for another term of 30 years.

Salton Sea and Colorado River Delta Restoration

Andy Horn explained that restoration funds derived from the water deal will go toward wetlands projects near the Salton Sea and may also go toward restoring the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.

This prospect divides nationalists and environmentalists for whom political borders tend to be obstacles in striving for sustainable resource management. During an NPR segment in October 2003, Lloyd Allen, of the IID, said, “I would hate to see (restoration) funds go to other places like Mexico.” Horn agrees, “The money generated out of this deal should stay in the U.S.”

However, others, such as the non-profit group Environmental Defense, see the potential to address the Delta as a positive one. The Environmental Defense website includes extensive research on the Colorado Delta and concludes, “Successful restoration of the delta will require the participation and cooperation of both the U.S. and Mexico.”

While the water agreement does not affect the 1944 Water Treaty, which allots Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water a year, the Colorado Delta has suffered over the past two decades from a great lack of water. Previously, the delta nurtured abundant plant and animal life as well as indigenous communities. Now, the delta is a region of mostly cracked, cement-like dirt and the people of the Delta struggle to continue environmentally sustainable traditions.

In addition, the Union-Tribune reports that the relining of the All-American Canal would mean a loss of 700,000 million acre-feet of leaked water used by Mexicali farmers.

To this issue, Cantu stated, “Mexican farmers have no legal rights to the leakage from the All-American Canal. That water belongs to the Imperial Irrigation District. We must protect that water and not let it to waste.”

Water efficiency is critical in order to limit the amount of farmland the Imperial Valley will have to idle. “I remain concerned that we will get to the end of the 15 years and we will have to keep fallowing because the Salton Sea will be no better than it is today,” Horn admitted.

If you have questions about this story or if you have your own story regarding the impact of the water transfer agreement or other water-related issues in the California/Baja California border region, please contact Perlita R. Dicochea at perlita@uclink.berkeley.edu.


San Diego Activists Push for Water Conservation

By Perlita R. Dicochea

In the midst of what some consider newly “guaranteed” water from the recent water transfer agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority, San Diego activists continue to press for heightened water conservation throughout San Diego County. The Water Forum, held two months ago and organized by the League of Women Voters with support from other concerned local and state entities, included water-saving tips and resources for individual households. Highlights from the forum are summarized below.

What can you do to conserve water?

Educate yourself and your household on the water issues in your city by visiting the following informative websites:


The Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College simultaneously demonstrates beauty, economics, and how to enhance our quality of life here in San Diego County. The facility is a hands-on, back-yard example of how Xeriscape concepts can be a direct and substantial benefit to San Diego County homeowners. Each of the seven basic principles of Xeriscape gardening are explained in detail and shown in real landscape plantings. Water Alternatives is demonstrated by three large water tanks. The labeled tanks represent three different types of water options: potable water, grey water, and reclaimed water.

The Water Conservation Garden is located at 12122 Cuyamaca College Drive West, El Cajon, CA 92019, (619) 660-0614, or you can visit their web site at: www.thegarden.org.


1. www.bewaterwise.com - this site is sponsored by the state of California and has information on water conservation tips as well as other recycling programs you can partake in.

2. Implement a zero-scape for the exterior landscape of your home. Zero-scapes use plants and trees native to the San Diego region with low water needs. Such plants are also drought resistant and provide fire barriers.

3. Also visit I Love A Clean San Diego, a non-profit organization at www.ilacsd.org. This organization provides recycling information and holds beach , bay, and creek cleanup days, environmental field trips, and is excellent for those who want to participate in other environmentally-friendly projects in San Diego County.

4. For the latest on water-wise housing development and modernized irrigation processes see ReWater Systems, Inc. in Chula Vista. Go to their website, www.rewater.com, for more information.

5. For a recycling guide and household questions, contact a Recycling and Household Hazardous Waste Hotline at 877-713-2784 for unincorporated counties, 800-237-2583 for incorporated cities (se habla español), or the City of San Diego at 858-467-0903.

6. For better household irrigation practices, bewaterwise.com offers an irrigation calculator. Simply type in the type of foliage you have along with your irrigation system and the irrigation calculator provides you a personalized irrigation schedule for the year.

Did you know?

1. On average, a bath requires 36 gallons of water, while an 8-minute shower requires 16 gallons of water.

2. Lawns require much more water than tropical landscapes. Alternatives to sod for ground cover include prairie grass and dimondia. Dimondia looks like grass but does not need mowing and needs very little water.

3. Residents should not water adjacent native landscapes such as canyon areas.

4. For year round garden color, your landscape does NOT need to include non-native species.

5. There are currently water-recycling programs implemented by the City of San Diego, SD County Water Authority, and other metropolitan water districts.

The above facts were provided by experts at the Water Form held in Balboa Park in November 2003 organized by the League of Women Voters of San Diego.

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