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How A Major Water Deal Affected San Diego And Imperial Valley Water Supplies

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October 23, 2013 1:23 p.m.


Dennis Cushman, Assistant General Manager, San Diego County Water Authority

Kevin Kelley, General Manager, Imperial Irrigation District

Related Story: How A Major Water Deal Affected San Diego And Imperial Valley Water Supplies


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Our top story, a deal that promised to transform San Diego's water supply and according to many, that is what it did. Ten years ago this month a contract was signed between seven states to share water from the Colorado River. Included in the agreement was a agreement for Imperial Valley to sell water to the San Diego County Water Authority. The pact made San Diego more independent from LA's Metropolitan Water District, but it also caused an uproar from Imperial Valley farmers, and hard feelings have not entirely disappeared. Here to talk to us about what the pact has done for San Diego, I would like to welcome Dennis Cushman. Welcome to the show. Remind us, how did the Colorado River Water Agreement, come about?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: It was born of crisis in San Diego County in 1991. We suffered major cutback from water supplies from the Metropolitan Water District. Our supply was cut by 31% and Metropolitan supplied 95% water in San Diego County at the time. We were essentially dependent on a single supplier of water. It was a bad experience for San Diego. We set out to diversify and return to a partner east of us ñ the Imperial Irrigation District ñ which owns superior water rights on the Colorado River, to negotiate a long-term water transfer deal.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That precipitated a resolution to disputes over the use of water from the Colorado River, right?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: The history of the Colorado River is conflict. The water agencies that take Colorado River water among the seven states that share water from the Colorado River. It's a lot of disputes. The Colorado Quantification Settlement Agreement set the path for decades of cooperation in transfers and partnerships going forward.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the most beneficial aspects of the pact was the transfer deal to sell Imperial Valley water supplies to San Diego. How did that come about? I would imagine proposing that to Imperial Valley straight off may not have been such an easy sell.

DENNIS CUSHMAN: Actually it was the Imperial Irrigation District. Leaders of Imperial Valley who proposed it. They wanted to preserve and protect senior water rights of the Colorado River. They were under attack by a number of agencies. The federal government, the State of California, and the Metropolitan Water District, among others. They were looking for a partner to work with. They wanted conserve water and to beneficially transfer that water for money to San Diego. We were certainly desirous of the long-term deal in a partnership that came together in the mid-1990s, and took eight years to get it done. It was concluded in 2003.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: For San Diego what was the controversy signing a deal at the time?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: The controversy was not doing anything. There was strong support for San Diego diversifying water. More senior Colorado River water. For improving the overall reliability of the San Diego County's water supply. In San Diego it was not controversial per se, but there was a great focus and support for pursuing an opportunity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But there were concerns about money? And the cost of water?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: Absolutely. Two questions. What is the reliability of the water compared to other sources, and what is the cost and certainty of that supply? Price was an issue. One we worked out successfully.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give us an idea of how much water San Diego does get from the deal?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: This year the water supply from transfers that we have in the Imperial Valley that account for almost a third of the water that we use in San Diego County. Thirty percent of the water this county is from deals that we're celebrating ten years later.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me welcome Kevin Kelley. Is Imperial Valley celebrating this ten year anniversary or is there still hard feelings?

KEVIN KELLEY: I'm not so sanguine as Dennis. About marking ten years. I do agree that the QSA was important ñ

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And when you say QSA that's the Quantification Settlement Agreement.

KEVIN KELLEY: The QSA actually encompasses the San Diego IID water transfer. But the impetus in California was to build with in the 4.4 million acre entitlement to the Colorado River the the state was exceeding. I think it's fair to say that we have moved beyond the initial controversy about transferring any water out of this region. People recognize that it's a necessary evil. But there is still the matter of the Salton Sea, and I think that that remains to be effectively dealt with.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How has the water transfer affected agriculture in the Imperial Valley?

KEVIN KELLEY: The principle is that we do through more with less water. Because the deal in the first 15 years relies almost exclusively on fallowing cultivated land, it has created some competition for our acres that would otherwise be farmed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why is that fallowing the main source of conservation? It was my understanding that Imperial Valley was the Imperial Irrigation District was to both use some of the money that it got for the water transfer to actually upgrade systematically conservation efforts in forming itself. Not just letting land lie fallow.

KEVIN KELLEY: We would much prefer to use efficiency measures. But the State Water Board has part of the approval of the water transfer of San Diego and with Coachella ordered for fifteen years the water should be generated through fallowing mainly to provide the state with sufficient time to develop a restoration plan for the Salton Sea.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How much does the Irrigation District receive on an annual basis from San Diego?

KEVIN KELLEY: As of 2003 in the signing of that QSA, IID has a 3.1 million acre annual entitlement about 70% of California's total take.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, but how much money do you get from San Diego for the water transfer?

KEVIN KELLEY: It scheduled ramps up into the ñ don't think we have reached the full ramp up until the next ten years. I think in 2012 it was about $75 million.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It sounds to me as if you think that this deal is still work in progress.

KEVIN KELLEY: It's been much easier to talk about it then to implement. We are doing it through solicitations, in which our growers volunteered to take land out from June to July each year and it's an ever-increasing amount of water and when it reaches full ramp up its will amount to 300,000 acre-feet or about 10% of the water we use annually.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kevin Kelley thank you for joining us. Let me go back to Dennis Cushman of the San Diego County Water Authority. We heard from the Imperial Valley it's still a work in progress. I want to talk about the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles because we used to get most of our water from the agency and most of the water was from Northern California. How much have we cut that down since this deal to transfer water from Imperial Valley?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: We have reduced our purchases by two thirds over the last two decades. Most of that came to the implementation of these Colorado River transfers. We have greatly reduced our overreliance on Metropolitan Water District. In 1991, 95% of water the used San Diego County came from there. It's down to about 30% now. A nearly 66% drop in our purchases.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But Metropolitan Water District is not out of this? San Diego Water Authority is still fighting them?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: That's right. San Diego makes payments to the Imperial Irrigation District for water supply, but separately we made payments under a separate contract. This is what they charge San Diego for the use of the facilities that is the centerpiece of ongoing litigation in San Francisco.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What has San Diego gained by becoming more water independent over the years?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: We have gained some significant improved water supply reliability to serve this region's $188 billion economy and protect quality of life. A good examples between 2009 and 2011 the Metropolitan Water District cut back our supplies by 13%, but because that we have greater local water supply development, the water cutback was moderated to 8%.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Even though we have this more reliable supply there are great concerns about the health of the Colorado River, and the federal government said recently that would be forced to cut water from Lake Mead the the lowest level ever, next year. What are water agencies like San Diego Water Authority doing to help conserve this precious resource? Are you concerned that what is happening with the Colorado River?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: Yes, we are obsessed with it. The Colorado River is the source of more than half of our region's water supply. We're actively engaged in issues to address the water supply shortages. We're not yet in this shortage, but it remains a serious threat. The benefit of these transfers is we bargained with the Imperial Irrigation District for higher priority water rights. That protects us from shortages on the Colorado River. We don't expect to see any shortages in San Diego because of the shortages on the Colorado River. The interstate pact with Nevada and Arizona in which those two states would take the first shortages before California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But what if that water continues to dwindle?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: It is going to make the idea of these water transfers more important. To find opportunities to use limited supplies of the river more cooperatively through these water transfers. You have organizations that hold the water rights willing to sell some the water, and take the money into investing in their economies. Is about using that QSA is about using less water on the Colorado River. Trying to get past battles of the past.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some people may be listening to our conversation and think all of this is good, but my water bill keeps going up. It seems like every year itcosts a little more. I am wondering are we going to see an end where the price of water starts to stabilize?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: We do anticipate near-term water cost is going to go up. One recent is reason is because water from the Metropolitan Water District has been the biggest driver in water rates in San Diego for ten years. They did not fix the revenue system. They're still relying on water sales for more than 80% of the revenue, it is just simple math. They sold fewer units, so they raised the price. Metropolitan has double of our water rates. We are getting to a point where we have greater control over a long-term cost of water. The pricing deal on the Imperial Irrigation District will provide greater cost certainty. We're developing more local supplies including seawater desalination, price governed by the contract rather than a Los Angeles Board of Directors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is your overall goal when it comes to sustainable water?

DENNIS CUSHMAN: To protect this region from devastating water supply cutbacks experienced two decades ago. Strengthen the reliability of supplies. Protecting its drought and water service shortages. Drought proof supply is more expensive today than imported water. We look to decades ahead and there will come a time when that local supply desalination and greater water recycling will be cost competitive; a better deal for San Diego than imported water.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have been talking with Dennis Cushman, Assistant General Manager at San Diego County Water Authorities.