One of Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s most famous paintings depicts a tobacco pipe with cursive script below it reading, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which translated from French means, “This is not a pipe.”

Imperial Valley has recently spawned its own surrealists in the style of Magritte who state that an agreement to sell water is not about selling water and that the San Diego Pipeline is not a pipe.

Confused? That appears to be by design.

When QSA water transfer advocates cannot persuasively challenge the argument that selling our Valley’s water to big cities is a rather bad idea for the people that live here; the tactic is to question that water is being sold at all and expect it to stick for at least a certain portion of readers left bewildered.

When San Diego Pipeline proponents cannot persuasively dispute the case that building a $5 billion pipeline to suck 100 billion gallons of Imperial Valley’s water every year away to San Diego leaving future generations of Imperial Valley residents with less water and fewer options; it is better to state that the Pipeline is not really a pipeline or question the plans to build it are real at all.

Surreal indeed.

In all seriousness, QSA water transfer historical revisionism and denial of reality in the case of the San Diego Pipeline have a corrosive effect on Imperial Valley’s ability to have rational argument and debate over some of our biggest decisions ahead. It is important to agree on the facts in order to thoughtfully debate the issues.

In a recent opinion by Wally Leimgruber, he states that the QSA water “transfer is a way of providing Imperial Valley funds to carry out conservation through a partnership with San Diego that also allows the San Diego County Water Authority to diversify its water supply” while also incredibly titling his letter “The QSA is not about selling water to San Diego.” 

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a sale as “the exchange of a commodity for money.” It is difficult to understand how exchanging water (commodity) for funds (money) is not a sale, and that the QSA is not actually about selling water.

But semantics aside, history refutes Mr. Leimgruber’s contemporary surrealism.

In 1997, the Washington Post reported, “[US Interior Secretary] Babbitt said he will not approve a historic sale of [Imperial Valley’s] water to San Diego unless the Imperial Irrigation District ... limits its demand on the Colorado River,” and that, “Babbitt said he is hopeful that Imperial Valley will accept limits on its Colorado River draw as a trade-off for getting his approval for the lucrative agreement to sell between 130,000 and 300,000 acre-feet annually of its Colorado River entitlement to San Diego.” Emphasis my own.

Earlier that year at the first Colorado River Compact symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Rita Schmidt Sudman of the Water Education Foundation stated that in 1995 the IID and the San Diego County Water Authority entered into an MOU so that “IID, Imperial, could conserve some water and sell it to San Diego County Water Authority.” Emphasis, again, my own.

It is abundantly clear that the QSA water transfers first originated as a proposed sale of water from Imperial Valley to San Diego, and became conditioned and expanded over the course of eight years from 1995 to 2003 culminating in the QSA we are forced to live with today and perhaps for the next century.

If QSA water transfer proponents are true to their belief that this disastrous set of deals that have destroyed the Salton Sea and permanently damaged the Valley’s economy has in the end been to the benefit of Imperial Valley, they should argue honestly and forcefully that position. 

However, seeking to confuse rather than persuade by stating that an agreement to sell water is not about selling water and that the San Diego Pipeline is not a pipe or is a hoax is not just intellectually dishonest — it's surreal.

(3) comments

Valley Boy

San Diego has the right to convey 155 cfs to the end of the AAC. They have been paying into the O&M fund collectively along with other contracted agencies to keep this contractual right. This would allow them to receive about 112,000 acre-feet annually. We will see if they have the political power to expand this to include all of their 200,000 acre-feet the have contracted for with the IID.

Per the 1984 Decision 1600 and Order WR 88-20 issued by the State Water Resources Control Board (after various public hearings and which was litigated and upheld), the IID is to conserve 367,900 acre-feet annually. No one in the valley foresaw this as a result of the initial John Elmore complaint to the SWRCB. The IID was found to be wasting this amount of water counter to the state constitution Article X Sect. 2 and Sect. 100 of the state water code. If we don't partner with an urban agency that can pay for conservation measures the state can deduct the volume deemed as waste (unreasonable use) from our annual deliveries. That has been the driver for the IID having to "sell water", not some back room decision. Thus the door was opened for the MWD and SDCWA conservation/transfer contracts totaling 400,000 acre-feet.

Brian McNeece

Who is the surrealist here?

Mr. Hamby’s reference to Magritte’s painting of a pipe is certainly a refreshing change from the usual illustrations to articles about water. But it’s not very relevant, as there is nothing surreal about Wally Leimgruber’s or my statements that are referenced.

Mr. Leimgruber’s point about the Quantification Settlement Agreement was that it was not primarily about selling water to the San Diego County Water Authority. The QSA includes 35 agreements; one of them is a deal to transfer water from the IID to San Diego. There is some nuance in calling the deal a transfer rather than a sale. But yes, IID is selling water. Mr. Hamby is right about that.

But I’m not sure what his point is, since Mr. Leimgruber was reminding us that the IID signed the QSA not because it wanted to sell water, but because it was under tremendous pressure from the state of California and the Department of the Interior. Several former IID directors and Imperial County supervisors who were part of the negotiations sent me notes to confirm this. Mr. Leimgruber’s point was that by signing the QSA we protected our rights and our reliable supply of water.

The Quantification Settlement Agreement has that unlovely name because its primary purpose was to correct some fuzzy, vague language from the 1931 Seven Parties Agreement that apportioned water to the California stakeholders. It also settled some long-standing legal disputes among the parties, including the federal government, through a peace treaty.

The 1931 language set up the IID’s water rights as elastic. Our rights were to 3.85 million acre-feet of water per year minus some amount of water needed to irrigate so many acres of land in Blythe, Yuma, and Coachella. Instead of this strange formula, the QSA quantified the IID’s water rights at 3.1 million a-f per year. Up until the QSA was signed, California was diverting much more than the 4.4 million acre-feet of water per year that the 1931 agreement entitled it to. So the QSA fixed that too.

As a side note, the rights of the upper basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico are still unquantified. This means the weather report calls for water squabbles in the north in years to come.

I suppose the Magritte illustration is a reference to my calling the San Diego Regional Conveyance System an aqueduct instead of a pipeline. I was just trying to be accurate. For the uphill portion, the aqueduct is a pipeline, sure. But on the downhill side, it’s many miles of an open canal and numerous tunnels bored through the mountains. I don’t understand why Mr. Hamby is overwrought about my calling it an aqueduct. Maybe he just doesn’t know that there’s more to this project than a pipeline.

What is surreal is Mr. Hamby sounding the alarm about the aqueduct sucking the Valley dry. The proposed aqueduct (it wouldn’t operate until 2048) would carry water that is already being sent to San Diego. This is like screaming to everyone to get ready to watch the parade when the parade has already passed by.

Since my writing is referenced in Mr. Hamby’s article, he seems to think I’m a proponent of the aqueduct from the Imperial Valley San Diego. I’m not. It’s way too early to have an opinion for or against it. I wrote to inform the public that the aqueduct (which of course includes a pipeline component) is a proposal we all need to know about.

San Diego County Water Authority’s proposal to build an aqueduct (what they call the Regional Conveyance System) is all about a dispute between them and the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles. We need to keep an open mind to see if there is any benefit for us as they study its complex ramifications.

JB Hamby

Hi Brian, Wally’s article is titled and states, “The QSA is not about selling water to San Diego,” not, “The QSA is not *primarily* about selling water to the San Diego County Water Authority,” which it in fact truly is as the rest of the QSA was precipitated by the intent by IID/SDCWA to engage in “market based transfers.” More for your reading pleasure: http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/secr_babbitt_CoR_issues97.html

Your “tremendous pressure” timeline is false revisionist history that, as far as I am able to find, has no historical support. Clearly, the IID’s MOU and work on a market based transfer beginning at least in 1995, which elicited Secretary Babbitt's comments that foreshadowed the “tremendous pressure” IID would be placed under years later in 2002-2003, namely, to approve the rest of the agreements that attached themselves like barnacles onto the vessel IID was steering in 1995, being the market based transfer proposal.

The Seven Parties Agreement was not fuzzy and vague as you state. It was quite clear and worked very well for IID for a very long time. No doubt it was inconvenient for junior users, but everything about IID is inconvenient for junior users. Once again, as evidenced by Babbitt's comments in 1997, the purpose of the quantification was to make the market based transfer make sense in the context of California’s overuse. It was effectively a quid pro quo for IID to quantify and reduce use in exchange for the market based transfer it had sought for at least two years by the time of his remarks. IID was told it had to eat the broccoli if it wanted dessert, which is the first and only thing it really wanted, clearly.

Unclear of your meaning about the Upper Basin being unquantified. The Upper Colorado River Compact assigned percentages to Upper Basin states which was their desire. They preferred this over the hard priority system in the Lower Basin, which protects Imperial Valley nicely but is less enjoyed by Arizona and Nevada for obvious reasons, namely, that those states lose their entire entitlements before California loses a drop in a shortage. That is the desire and choice of the Upper Basin to share shortages and available water rather than a priority system up there.

The Upper Basin struggles to come are primarily meeting their Delivery Obligation under the Compact. So in the sense that they must send 75 MAF over a 10 year period to the Lower Basin in addition to Mexico’s deliveries, and get to keep whatever unquantified amount is left, that is perhaps correct. But it is unwise and highly irregular to suggest that the Lower Basin should alter its effective senior priority over the Upper Basin to, for whatever reason, give them a quantified number. Currently they use just over 4 MAF out of the theoretical 7.5 they are entitled to.

As discussed at yesterday’s SDCWA webinar on the San Diego Pipeline’s economics, it was stated that should the San Diego Pipeline/RCS be constructed, it will leave the Colorado River Aqueduct half-full, and in the Water Authority’s words, render it a “stranded asset” unless other supplies were obtained. The Water Authority also stated that its QSA and local supplies would not meet San Diego’s needs for future growth.

It is surreal that you, Brian, completely miss the fact that opening up enormous new conveyance capacity to a region seeking additional supplies would clearly require those existing and new supplies be obtained from Imperial Valley and be conveyed through not a single pipe at capacity now, but two pipes owned by agencies determined to keep them full.

It is unwise and frightening that Imperial Valley be used as a political pawn in San Diego’s quixotic windmill tilts against Metropolitan with no discernible benefit to Imperial Valley whatsoever. Only enormous risk for additional water being removed and no way for future generations to return our water to use here in Imperial Valley.

Please, pray tell, describe how a future IID Board would be able to make the QSA, as designed, *temporary* and choose to return our water for use and development here once a $5 billion pipe had been constructed, only to convey 80,000 out of 280,000 AF?

As you say, the pipeline is a proposal we all need to know about. The response would be, as I have heard many times from folks shaking their heads, “Why would we ever build such a thing?”

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