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http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20040914/news_1n14deal.html

Colorado River conservation pact awaits signature

By Michael Gardner
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

September 14, 2004

SACRAMENTO – Moving to avert disruptions in water deliveries and power generation, Interior Secretary Gale Norton today will sign an agreement that promises $625 million over the next half-century to protect rare fish and wildlife along the Colorado River from Lake Mead to Mexico.
The cost-sharing agreement with major water purveyors in California, Arizona and Nevada is considered a milestone in an eight-year push to adopt a broad conservation plan for the 300-mile section of the Colorado, home to some 30 threatened or endangered species.
It also has far-reaching implications for the San Diego County Water Authority's effort to secure a new, long-term supply from the Colorado River.
Without an environmental protection plan in place, federal and state officials fear they could be forced to slow deliveries and curtail hydropower production to protect fish and wildlife at a time of mounting growth pressures from Scottsdale to San Diego.
"You could see a shutdown of water transfers or power operations," warned Dennis Underwood, who negotiated the funding commitment for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Those worries are not unfounded. In the Pacific Northwest, the timber industry was handcuffed by protections for the spotted owl. The Bureau of Reclamation turned off irrigation water to 1,400 Klamath Basin farmers to save three protected fish species in 2001.
Under terms of the tri-state accord to be unveiled in Phoenix this morning, the Interior Department will pay half of the estimated $625 million cost of implementing conservation programs along the Colorado. The Metropolitan Water District, the giant Los Angeles-based wholesaler, will contribute about $150 million and water agencies in Arizona and Nevada will pay the rest.
It is unclear what cost may be assessed to MWD's member agencies, which include the county water authority.
"Fifty years from now, the communities that depend on the water will still be thriving," Norton says in remarks prepared for today's ceremony. "The power that it produces will still be flowing. The states will still have certainty of water supplies. The threatened species will still have a certainty of protection."
Environmentalists are not convinced. They walked away from negotiations long ago, claiming the proposed fish and wildlife recovery plan will do little to bring back populations decimated by dams and large-scale water diversions across the Southwest.
For example, the conservation plan relies on hatchery-produced fish to repopulate the river rather than taking steps to preserve wild runs.
"They're simply breeding them in hatcheries and dumping them in the river," said Jennifer Pitt, who monitors Colorado River issues for Environmental Defense.
The conservation plan also does not include temperature controls to protect fish from warm water releases out of Hoover Dam and it ignores the environmental concerns south of the Mexican border, she said.
"Instead of making systemic changes, this plan is using a Band-Aid approach," Pitt said.
The conservation plan calls for the creation of 8,100 acres of habitat along the river.
With funding commitments in hand, federal and state water officials hope to adopt the conservation plan by early January.
It comes at a critical juncture for the West, which has been mired in a lengthy drought that has drawn comparisons to the Dust Bowl days.
The conservation plan could come into play as water agencies negotiate ways to relieve shortages by transferring water to parched regions and changing river diversion points – decisions that could threaten fish and wildlife.
Those involved say an estimated 1.5 million acre-feet of water – enough for 3 million households a year – could be shifted as part of an emergency drought response.
By having a broad recovery plan, these tactics could withstand court challenges, parties to the agreement said.
"This is looking ahead at what could happen and looking at a worst-case scenario," explained Jerry Zimmerman, executive director of the Colorado River Board.
"If that never occurs, there's still a lot of environmental benefits gained," he said.
The conservation plan could head off potential pitfalls as the San Diego County Water Authority moves forward with plans to obtain 277,000 acre-feet of water – enough for more than 500,000 households a year.
"It gives us assurances that we don't have today," said Jim Taylor, a water authority attorney.
Although the water authority already has an aggressive environmental mitigation plan in place, the agency is wary of surprises, such as a new endangered species listing that could hamper its efforts to acquire more water.
The water authority eventually plans to buy up to 200,000 acre-feet from Imperial Valley farmers and line leaking earthen canals to recapture 77,000 acre-feet.
 
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