By Robyn Rutger
Managing Editor

November 27, 2002

The importance of a rapidly approaching deadline for dealing with water from the Colorado River was emphasized last week by Interior Secretary Gale Norton as she addressed attendees at the fall conference of the Association of California Water Agencies in Anaheim.

During the conference at the Disneyland Hotel, Norton acknowledged that California must meet the requirements of the Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement (also known as the California 4.4 Plan) by the end of the year in order to have continued access to surplus water in the river beyond the state’s annual allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet.

Norton expressed confidence that the state’s water districts would meet the requirements that are the result of a decade-long process between the Department of the Interior and the seven Colorado River Basin states. She stressed, however, that if those requirements are not met by Dec. 31, then in 2003, California will lose access to as much as 800,000 acre-feet of extra water from the Colorado River.

An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough to sustain the household needs of eight people for one year.

Norton expressed her hope that the hard work of all the parties will result in success, but cautioned that the Dec. 31 deadline is rapidly approaching. “We are now only one month plus one week away from mandatory action and there are no time outs left,” she said.

The Cal-Fed San Francisco Bay-Delta Program was another topic that Norton addressed during her keynote speech at the ACWA conference.

Cal-Fed is a consortium of federal and state agencies that is charged with the task of balancing the water needs of California’s farmers, cities and the Bay-Delta ecosystem. The program is dependent upon state and federal funding. While state funds have been allocated for the current fiscal year, federal funds have not.

“We share with many of you a very strong desire to see the Congress authorize the Cal-Fed program,” Norton said. She noted that the U.S. Senate passed “a bare-bones version of that authorization” last Wednesday.

“If this provision becomes law, it will remove one hurdle to full federal participation in Cal-Fed,” she said.

Rep. Wally Herger, R-Redding, opposed the bill, however, and consequently, no action was taken on the legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is now adjourned.

“Clearly, implementing the program will be significantly more complex than creating it on paper,” Norton said, noting that “budget pressures are among the challenges we face.”

After Norton’s speech, Stephen Hall, executive director of ACWA, said, “I feel reassured that they want Cal-Fed to succeed and will do what they can to help, including funding. But I also heard her say Cal-Fed would have to compete with other priorities. We expect that, but we believe because Cal-Fed is a model for how to solve Western resource problems, it should be viewed as an investment not just in California but as an investment in the future of the West.”

A total of 2,126 people attended the conference, breaking last year’s record by one. Participants attended sessions ranging from improving domestic water systems to regional watershed planning.

The Central Valley Project Improvement Act was discussed by panelists representing agriculture, cities and the environment. The Central Valley Project is a federal water project that provides water to agricultural and urban contractors. Enacted 10 years ago, the CVPIA reallocated 800,000 acre-feet of farmers’ irrigation water to the environment. Farmers are still paying the operation and maintenance fees for the 800,000 acre-feet of water that they do not have access to. Farmers want to be compensated.

Kole Upton, chairman of the Friant Water Users Authority, said, “CVPIA is not divinely inspired.” The FWUA distributes federal water to farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. When asked what was the one thing he would do to change the law that was passed in 1992, Upton responded, “Repeal it.”

At a session entitled, “The Regulatory and Economic Crisis for California Agriculture in the 21st Century,” two water attorneys provided a summary of problems that the agricultural industry faces, ranging from water shortages to foreign competition. Jeanne Zolezzi of Herum Crabtree Brown law firm in Stockton cited a recent report by the California Farm Bureau Federation Farm Crisis Task Force that shows there are multiple causes of the farm crisis.

Chris Campbell of Baker Manock & Jensen law firm in Fresno said California’s population of 35 million people is expected to grow to 50 million in the next 15 years. “That population growth is going to require water,” he said.

Challenges to irrigators include a lawsuit by about 20 environmental groups who want to restore salmon runs on the San Joaquin River.

In addition, in 2003, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley will no longer be exempt from federal air pollution regulations and are concerned that they will not be able to comply with the new rules, Zolezzi said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate 1.7 million acres of California land as critical habitat in order to protect vernal pool species such as fairy shrimp. Much of this acreage is situated on agricultural land.

Due to salinity problems in the San Joaquin Valley, the federal government has proposed to buy 35,000 acres of farmland within the Westlands Water District and use it as an irrigation drainage area. Farmers are concerned that they will not be adequately compensated for the land buy-out, however.

After the attorneys’ presentation, Bob Curry, a director of the Solano Irrigation District in Vacaville and a Farm Service Agency employee, reacted by saying, “I find their comments to be typical of what I’ve heard in the last five years in my job as a Farm Service Agency representative. Their thoughts on the positive side were quite scarce regarding the whole agricultural picture.”

Another session focused on helping water districts improve communications with their members.

Dave Kranz, CFBF water information specialist, discussed Web site design. He likened it to first-time visitors to an office building who should be able to find out where they need to go as soon as they walk into the lobby. “A visitor to your Web site should be able to find what he or she wants in one or two or at most three clicks of the mouse,” he said. “If not, your visitor will leave in frustration and may or may not come back.”

Numerous awards were presented during the ACWA conference.

State Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, received the ACWA Lifetime Achievement Award. Costa has been chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Water Resources Committee since he was elected to the Senate in 1994. In his previous job as a California assemblyman, he chaired the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee from 1983-1990.

Costa, who has reached the end of his legislative tenure, recalled his accomplishments during his keynote speech at the ACWA luncheon on Wednesday.

“You cannot solve all you problems in Sacramento or Washington alone, “he said, calling on every region to “forge ahead” and work together.

The ACWA President’s Award was presented to Assemblyman Dave Kelley, R-Palm Desert, for his years of distinguished service in the Legislature. First elected to the Assembly in 1978, Kelley has authored key measures on water conservation, local government organization, water rights and agricultural land preservation.

“Dave Kelley has been a strong and effective representative of his constituents, with a reputation for bipartisanship and cooperation,” ACWA President Bette Boatmun said. “He has been a great friend of ACWA.”