Since the 2003 signing of the Quantification Settlement Agreement that capped the Imperial Irrigation District’s annual entitlement from the Colorado River at 3.1 million acre-feet, the district’s reluctance to institute a system of apportionment has come at a cost to its credibility among water contractors on the river and widened the chasm between IID and its water users. Bridging that divide can only be achieved through a sustained dialogue that occurs somewhere in the middle and focuses on solving our mutual problems rather than advancing our respective legal positions.
In the year ahead, those problems mainly center on how the district intends to manage the water it must produce to meet its transfer obligations under the QSA. Primarily owing to IID’s decision in 2011 to refrain from issuing fallowing contracts while the QSA coordinated cases were being tried before an appellate court, as well as strong agricultural commodity markets that resulted in inadvertent overruns in each of the last two years, the estimated volume of water slated to be conserved and transferred in 2013 is approaching 250,000 acre-feet.
All of the above presents IID with any number of challenges as it deals with what can only be regarded as a new era on the Colorado River and within its own irrigation service territory. Finding consensus at home — and fostering the receptiveness to change that must accompany it — will depend on the extent to which IID embraces a key precept of the so-called Plan B study of the QSA performed by Charles DuMars:
“The mission of the IID controls over the QSA; the QSA does not control over the mission of the IID …”
I think it is a fair criticism of this organization that it has become too preoccupied with the disposition of the QSA and the water transfers that it authorized. Over time, an institutional bias in favor of propping up IID’s legal case has blurred the distinction between carrying out the district’s mission of delivering water and carrying a torch for the nation’s largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer. But transferring water from the farms and fields of the Imperial Valley to urban Southern California was never about water marketing; instead, it was always about protecting the Imperial Valley’s water rights, a simple fact that has been too often overlooked in the local water rights debate that that has raged more or less continuously in the wake of the QSA’s signing.
IID is trustee of the Imperial Valley’s water rights and its duty is to all of its water users. While I don’t believe those rights are portable, there can be no doubt that they are assignable, mitigable and appurtenant to the land. Those who grow food and fiber have a legal right to use, which is not an insignificant thing, but it isn’t ownership, and there is nothing in the district’s planned apportionment of water to them that can change this right or IID’s responsibility as their trustee.
For IID and its agricultural water users, the greatest threat lies not in the current state of the law but in the practical state of the local landscape, where conditions on the ground may have changed but entrenched positions and attitudes haven’t. A lot of water has passed under the bridge — and to urban Southern California — since the signing of the QSA and in that time key segments of the original structure have been swept away so that only remnants are left and the bridge itself has been rendered impassable. Where we have been in the past decade of protecting the Imperial Valley’s water rights is of less consequence than where we are going, but of one thing we can be sure:
We’re going to need a new bridge and we should begin building it today.
Kevin Kelley is general manage of the Imperial Irrigation District.