Far From Perfect Deal for San Diego

California water rights need to be better defined

After more than a year of negotiations, officials have finally reached an agreement to transfer water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County. That means San Diegans likely won’t see their own version of Denver’s “sod patrols” monitoring how lawns are watered.

Then again, the issue was never about how much water the typical Southern Californian uses in a day (a number that has actually dropped from 205 gallons per person in 1980 to 170 today). This was about water rights, money and the Salton Sea – and this deal really only solves the money issue – for now. Some environmentalists, out to protect the Salton Sea, a salt lake that is crucial to the survival of hundreds of species of birds, have already sued the federal government to stop a transfer they argue could further threaten the sea and may launch additional lawsuits now. Not all the farmers in Imperial Valley will be happy with the terms of the agreement. And the overall question of water rights remains unanswered.

In the West, water rights are often staked out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Farmers in Imperial Valley staked their claim to water from the Colorado River long before metropolitan Southern California, but they also understood that political pressure to share the water was mounting, so they tried to make a deal. The deal that was made in 1998 was very different from the one just arrived at, where in exchange for idling 20,000 acres of land, Imperial Valley will get $10 million from San Diego to help ease the socio-economic impacts on the region and another $10 million spread out over the next 20 years. The Valley will also receive $258 for every acre-foot of water that it transfers to San Diego – and maybe most importantly will not be held liable for the ultimate fate of the Salton Sea. The deal caps Imperial Valley’s liability for damage to the Salton Sea at $30 million.

Environmentalists and farmers know that the Salton Sea is already in dismal shape. It is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, and the money required to save it is astronomical – an estimated $1 billion. Farmers didn’t want to be on the hook for bills to repair the Sea and now they won’t be. The question remains, who will bear the cost? Taxpayers?

The overlying question of water rights also remains unanswered. Should cities take priority over farming communities simply because their higher populations ensure they will have more political clout? Weak water rights are one reason the transfer agreement has been so bitter so far – where rights are unclear, politics enters the fray and confusion ensues. If rights are not better specified, the bitter, yearlong fight over this transfer will be oft-repeated in California and in the several other Western states closely watching this process. With a better, more concrete definition of water rights, there would be a stronger ability to voluntarily move water where it is most needed, whether that means to cities like San Diego, or for environmental amenities like the Salton Sea.

“We feel magnificent about it, this is a boost not only to the San Diego region, but to California as a whole and will set the tone for future water policy and negotiations,” said Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager for the San Diego County Water Authority.

He’s right. This agreement is good for San Diego in that it averts the threat of a water shortage for the time being. But in terms of overall water policy this agreement leaves more questions than answers. Farmers and environmentalists can still hold up the transfer, perhaps indefinitely if they all wind up in court. On the other hand, if Imperial Valley farmers and environmentalists joined forces to back stronger and more broadly defined water rights, they could reap mutually beneficial rewards. Together they could dictate some of the terms of the transfer to ensure that water is allocated for both agricultural and environmental benefit throughout the Imperial Valley.

The state, and the West, needs a system where the public interest manifests itself through voluntary exchanges of water, not prolonged political battles. In Oregon, for example, an expansion in the definition of “beneficial use” of water resulted in the creation of the Oregon Water Trust, which pays farmers and buys water rights to keep water in stream. What was once a bitter fight over water turned into a peaceful, voluntarily market for water and water rights. This deal doesn’t do that. If and when water rights are more clearly defined, California’s urban users will get water without onerous restrictions on when they can use it — but not at the expense of agriculture or the environment. In the meantime, see you in court.

Michael De Alessi is director of natural resource policy at Reason Foundation