Ten years after the historic water pact was signed at Hoover Dam, the San Diego County Water Authority is commemorating the 2003 Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA, for its role in enhancing the region’s economy and quality of life by improving long-term water supply reliability.
The QSA encompasses nearly three dozen individual agreements that fundamentally changed the way water is used in California, creating a framework for the state to live within its basic annual apportionment of water from the Colorado River. For San Diego County, three long-term water transfers at the heart the QSA are especially important – a 45- to 75-year agreement between the Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) that will provide 200,000 acre-feet annually, and two canal-lining projects that are providing San Diego County with approximately 80,000 acre-feet of conserved water annually for 110 years. That water comes from constructing concrete-lined sections of the All-American and Coachella canals in Imperial Valley, conserving water that was previously lost to seepage from earthen canals.
The Colorado River water transfer and canal lining projects form a key element of the San Diego region’s long-term water supply diversification strategy. From 2003 through 2012, these transfers provided approximately 900,000 acre-feet of water for San Diego County. This year alone, the region will receive more than 180,000 acre-feet. The amount will keep growing until 2021, at which point the combined transfers will provide 280,000 acre-feet annually – enough to meet the yearly water needs of more than a half-million households, or roughly one-third of all the water used in San Diego County. (An acre-foot is approximately 325,900 gallons, or enough to supply two typical single-family households of four for a year.)
The Water Authority-IID agreement will shift up to 13 million acre-feet of water from primarily agricultural use in the Imperial Valley to primarily urban use in San Diego County – the largest long-term agriculture-to-urban transfer in the nation’s history. In addition, the county will receive about 8.5 million acre-feet from the two canal-lining agreements. The QSA also provided final resolution of the San Luis Rey Indian Settlement, under which several bands of Mission Indians in north San Diego County will receive 16,000 acre-feet annually from the canal-lining projects.
For San Diego County, the Colorado River water transfers are particularly important during dry times, and they already have helped reduce the impacts of water supply shortages. They buffered the impacts of cutbacks imposed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) between July 2009 and April 2011 by about 40 percent, and they will provide more protection from future supply reductions in coming years. Because the Colorado River water involved in the transfers is not purchased from MWD, it won’t be cut back even if drought or regulatory restrictions force MWD to reduce its deliveries.
“Few events over the past decade can rival the significance of the Colorado River water transfer and canal-lining projects in terms of fueling our region’s $188 billion economy or preserving our quality of life,” said Thomas V. Wornham, chair of the Water Authority’s Board of Directors. “The agreements were not easy to craft, but the Water Authority showed tenacity, and regional civic and business leaders provided steadfast support. We owe a big ‘thank you’ to the people throughout our community who showed unwavering dedication to securing a diversified water supply portfolio."
In coming weeks, Water Authority representatives will attend meetings of civic and business groups such as the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., and BIOCOM to thank them for their commitment to the transfer agreement and other initiatives that enhance the region’s long-term water supply reliability.
San Diego County not only will benefit from the increased quantity of independent Colorado River water, but also from the senior water rights held by IID that make the transfer water more reliable than imported water from MWD. In addition, the Water Authority will benefit from the price stability afforded by the transfers. While those supplies currently are more expensive than imported water from MWD, MWD’s rates have increased dramatically and unpredictably in recent years, while the cost of the Colorado River water transfers are governed by contractual limits that gives the region greater cost certainty over time.
The Colorado River water agreements were developed after the drought of 1987-92, which showed how San Diego County was vulnerable to major supply disruptions because it depended on the Los Angeles-based MWD for 95 percent of its water. When MWD cut water deliveries to the region by 31 percent in 1991-92, local government and business leaders pressed the Water Authority to protect the county’s economy by diversifying its water sources.
In September 1995, the Water Authority announced it had reached a memorandum of understanding on a long-term conservation-and-transfer agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District, but the innovative concept faced many challenges. Over time, the state of California realized the potential for a Water Authority-IID transfer to play a key role in developing a wider set of agreements that would settle a number of longstanding conflicts. It also helped the state reduce its overdependence on the Colorado River and live within its basic annual apportionment of 4.4 million acre-feet per year from the river. It would take eight years to negotiate and finalize the QSA. The pact was signed by representatives from the Water Authority, IID, MWD, Coachella Valley Water District and the state and federal governments during a ceremony at Hoover Dam on Oct. 16, 2003.
For California, the successful implementation of the voluntary agriculture-to-urban transfers and related projects enabled the state to reduce its historic overreliance on the Colorado River and ease tensions with other Colorado River Basin states – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The other basin states also benefit from having a greater likelihood of being able to access their full apportionments from the river.
The QSA also incorporated environmental protections for the Salton Sea, including deliveries of water to the sea until 2017 to make up for reduced agricultural drainage flows during the first 15 years of the Water Authority-IID water transfer. As part of the deal, the state of California assumed responsibility for the larger Salton Sea restoration effort.
Over the years, aspects of the QSA have been contested in court – and it has withstood those challenges. In July 2013,Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly validated the QSA and rejected the remaining legal challenges. Appeals to elements of Connelly’s ruling are still working their way through the courts. The water transfers and other activities contemplated by the QSA have continued during the legal challenges.
“Ten years later, the Colorado River water transfers have proven to be an enormous boon for the San Diego region and for California,” said Water Authority General Manager Maureen A. Stapleton, who led negotiations for the agency on the transfer agreements. “We will continue to face challenging water conditions in the years ahead, and the transfer agreements offer a roadmap for collaborative and innovative solutions that can help sustain all of the communities involved, along with the environment."
In addition to the Colorado River water transfers, the Water Authority and its 24 member retail water agencies have aggressively and successfully pursued other elements of the regional water supply diversification strategy. Together, they have expanded local sources such as recycling and reuse, groundwater development and conservation. In 2012, the Water Authority committed to another piece of the diversification plan by signing a historic water purchase agreement to secure desalinated seawater from the Carlsbad Desalination Project, which is under construction. The goal by 2020 is to have the Colorado River water transfers and local supplies reduce the region’s reliance on MWD to 30 percent. The Water Authority’s portfolio approach has been praised by the San Diego County Grand Jury and independent water industry analysts as a highly successful approach and one that could serve as a model for other communities in the U.S.
For more information about the Colorado River water transfers, go to www.sdcwa.org/colorado-transfers-enhance-region-water-supply-protect-economy.