EL CENTRO, Calif. - Water officials in California's poorest county have defiantly refused to approved a large-scale water sale to San Diego County, despite warnings from the federal government that the move will mean a severe cutback in water to coastal Southern California.
Governing board members said Monday that they bitterly resent escalating threats by state and federal officials for Imperial County to sell part of its water or face dire consequences, including having the board disbanded, state projects for Imperial Valley nixed, and the valley's own water supply reduced.
"If you push me around, I'll push back," vowed Stella Mendoza, board president for the Imperial Irrigation District. "We'll see them in court. I'm willing to pay for our defense. ... Without water, the Imperial Valley is nothing."
The Bush administration has vowed to immediately suspend rules allowing coastal Southern California to receive surplus water from the Colorado River unless the Imperial board approves the San Diego transfer by Dec. 31. The deal is key to satisfying the administration's demand that California reduce its overall use of the river.
Other Western states, particularly Arizona and Nevada, are eager for California to use less Colorado River water so they can begin to receive their full entitlements.
After voting down the proposed 75-year deal with San Diego by 3-2, the Imperial board voted to have their lawyers draft a potential deal of three to five years in hopes of keeping the federal government from following through on its threats.
Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley rejected the idea of a three- to five-year deal and said it is now a near certainty that Southern California will get reduced water.
The Imperial board has voted to hire the firm of Ken Khachigian, a Southern California lawyer, water expert and Republican political consultant.
Board member Bruce Kuhn, who joined Mendoza and Andy Horne in opposition to the deal, said he expects "the state politicians will be at our throats and the feds will be at our throats."
Tony Perry writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.