The rural water district that rejected a 75-year plan to reduce California's use of Colorado River water has offered its own plan -- a five-year proposal that would require other water agencies to share responsibility for the environmentally sensitive Salton Sea.
Imperial Irrigation District officials plan to present the proposal during negotiations with federal and state officials beginning Sunday in Las Vegas.
The plan involves transferring water from the sparsely populated Imperial Valley to rapidly growing San Diego County.
"IID remains committed to being part of a regional solution to California's changing water needs as long as the Imperial Valley's water rights and economy are not compromised," said board President Stella Mendoza.
Mendoza said the original plan was too risky for the water district.
"A short-term transfer gives us all time to work out the environmental concerns and permitting problems that became an insurmountable barrier," she said.
San Diego County officials Saturday rejected the temporary proposal as a departure from four years of planning.
"We're not interested in changing up the deal," said Bob Campbell, a negotiator for the San Diego County Water Authority. "We're interested in making what we have work."
Seven Western states have fought for decades over the Colorado River, which serves 25 million people from Denver to San Diego. Imperial County uses a trillion gallons of water from the river every year to transform a desert into one of the richest farm belts on Earth.
Federal officials said they will not accept a deal lasting only five years and have threatened to drastically reduce California's allotment of Colorado River water if a plan acceptable to them isn't in place by Dec. 31.
Campbell called Imperial's five-year plan an effort to deflect criticism should federal officials follow through on the threat. "It was their way of saying they didn't say no," he said.
Meanwhile, to protect against the potential loss of Colorado River water, the Metropolitan Water District has been negotiating since September with Sacramento Valley rice farmers to buy enough water to supply 1 million Southern California households for a year.
MWD officials reached tentative agreements to pay more than $2 million for options on the water, or about $10 per acre-foot, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday.
If the MWD does use the water, the Sacramento Valley districts would get an additional $90 an acre-foot, pumping $20 million into the local farm economy.
In rejecting the 75-year plan Monday, the Imperial Irrigation District's Board of Directors said it was being forced upon them, would endanger Imperial Valley's $1 billion a year farm economy, and didn't take into account possible liability they could face if their water diversions damaged the Salton Sea.
The sea, an inland body of water that survives on agricultural runoff, is habitat to some 400 species of birds.
"Rather than say we're going to embark on a 75-year deal that takes us into areas of uncertainty and tremendous risks, those areas need to be resolved before we sign on the dotted line," said district spokeswoman Susan Giller.
The proposal the board unveiled Friday appeared to differ little from the one it rejected Monday, other than it would be limited to five years and would distribute responsibility for the Salton Sea to other districts.
"The Imperial Irrigation District believes that if someone else benefits from the water, that party should also be responsible for the environmental mitigation," Giller said.
The district proposed the five-year limit so it could have more time to refine a longer-term deal, Giller said.
While the original plan called for transferring as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water a year from the agriculturally rich Imperial Valley to San Diego County, the temporary proposal would only send about 200,000. The transfer would be limited to 100,000 acre-feet in the first year.
It also calls for a $20 million payment to the district to make up for lost agricultural jobs, as well as $200 per acre-foot for water provided.
The Imperial Valley in turn would reduce its water consumption by paying farmers not to work about 27,000 acres.