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April 24, 2014

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Deal divvies up water, ends feud

Politicians from across the West and in Washington, D.C., gathered at Hoover Dam Thursday to bring "peace on the river" and offer mutual congratulations on hammering out a long delayed, and critically needed, water pact.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton provided the last, essential signature to the Quantification Settlement Agreement, a pact that sets consumption limits for four California water agencies and transfers water used for agriculture to urban areas.

Critical for the Las Vegas Valley, the deal also allows Nevada to take 10 percent or more above its allocation from the Colorado River for the next 15 years, a margin of safety for Las Vegas' ever-growing population.

Joining Norton was California Gov. Gray Davis, who marked one of the final important official duties after losing the Oct. 7 recall election to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Norton, a Bush administration official, crossed party lines to thank Davis for the work of his staff in promoting the water deal, and Davis returned the favor.

Beyond the return of so-called "interim surplus guidelines" allowing Nevada and California to take more than their basic allotment from the river, the pact provides a framework for the seven states of the Colorado River basin to take water from the river for the next 75 years. The deal effectively answers questions that were not answered in the original deal signed by the same seven states when Hoover Dam was authorized in 1929, Norton said.

"With the signing of the Colorado River water delivery agreement, we witness a resolution of issues that have been unresolved for more than 70 years," Norton told the crowd of water and elected leaders from the basin states.

With the pact California agrees to pare its use of river water to the 4.4 million acre-feet of water for which the state was limited in the 1929 pact. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough water for a typical family for one year.

Much of the water affected by the deal will go to San Diego in a transfer from largely agricultural areas. The Imperial Valley, California's biggest user of Colorado River water, will sell as much as 90 billion gallons each year to San Diego -- roughly a third of the city's future water needs.

"The key to meeting this commitment was dividing up California's 4.4 million acre-foot share among its southern farming and urban communities," Norton said. "This objective has eluded our grasp since 1931."

A representative of the Imperial Irrigation District said his district would abide by the terms of the deal, but was less effusive with his praise.

"You suckers took a long darn time to get this done, you know?" said Lloyd Allen, president of the district's board of directors.

The agricultural district voted earlier this month 3-2 to agree to the deal. The agency, which takes most of the Colorado River water destined for California, had been the holdout last December that caused the earlier round of talks to collapse.

Despite the split vote on his board, an indication of the ambivalence within his own community, Allen said his district would abide by the terms of the deal.

"We're going to make it work," he said. "We've got to go forward. We've got a contract and we're going to honor that."

The signing ceremony on an observation platform above Hoover Dam followed years of negotiations and came 10 months after California failed to ratify the Quantification Settlement Agreement by the original deadline.

That deadline was Dec. 31, 2002. Since then Interior, the governors of both California and Nevada, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the other five states of the river basin and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, among others, have pushed California's four water agencies to settle their differences and get behind an agreement.

Without that agreement, officials feared legal skirmishing would escalate into political warfare. With the agreement, lawsuits traded between the Imperial Irrigation District and the Interior Department have been dropped.

"These negotiators worked through an astounding series of difficult issues," Norton said.

Among the benefits of the agreement is certainty for all the states of the river basin, a guarantee that within natural limits they will have water for growth; that the threatened Salton Sea will be protected in Southern California; farming communities along the southern river basin will receive aid to modernize their water-use systems; and "Nevada will be able to return to the long-term path it has developed to meet the needs of its growing population," she said.

"With this agreement, conflict on the river is stilled," Norton concluded.

Davis, who paraphrased Mark Twain's aphorism that in the West, "whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting," said the deal begins a new chapter in river history and law.

"Today we end the litigation, fighting and feuds that have dominated water negotiations for too long and begin a new era of cooperation on water issues," he said.

Nevada officials, who have faced the twin challenges of an unrelenting drought as well as the loss of interim surplus water, welcomed the relief of at least one of their burdens.

"This is a great thing," said Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid, a member of the water authority board of directors. "It's not often that you see people on the Colorado River cooperating."

Reid, a Democrat and a son of Sen. Reid, who could not attend the ceremony, echoed comments from Norton that the pact represented a victory of practical need over partisan politics.

"There's plenty of credit to go around here," he said. "I think what motivated it mostly is that water is such a precious resource in this part of the country. Everybody had a vested interest."

Commissioner Reid, Interior officials including Norton and officials from the other states promised to monitor California's efforts to wean itself from the surplus over the next 15 years.

"The agreement not only needs to be signed, it needs to be enforced in the future," Reid said. "It doesn't do any good if all we have is a nice little ceremony."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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