It would be the largest farm-to-city water transfer in US history.
And in a state that is both the nation's most populous and its most agriculturally productive, the controversial plan goes to the core of California's identity. The farm-rich Imperial Valley is being asked to share its imported water supplies with burgeoning San Diego suburbs. If it doesn't, the US Interior Department threatens to suspend the flow of surplus Colorado River water by year end.
The story echoes one of a century ago: a water transfer from the High Sierras to build Los Angeles - at the expense of majestic Owens Valley. But this time, the farming region just north of the Mexican border has no intention of giving up its economic lifeblood.
Watching in the wings are Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada. They've stood by for years while California has taken well over its allotment from the Colorado River, but they now need that water for their own burgeoning populations.
"After well over a century of doing things one way to favor the production of food, this new agreement represents a huge social and cultural shift," says Richard Golb, former president of the Northern California Water Association, and now a consultant in Portland, Ore. "It's not just a water transfer. It's a shift of resources, wealth and values from the desert to the coast."
With a Dec. 31 deadline, four of southern California's largest water districts are meeting in coming days to discuss whether to sign a 75-year water deal. The proposal would help cut the state's water usage - which has long been well over its fair share - by shifting water currently used by farmers to urban customers in and around San Diego.
The four water districts - the San Diego County Water Authority, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, the Coachella Valley Water District, and the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) - are under pressure from the Bush administration to reduce their overuse of the Colorado River so that other states can get what they've been entitled to.
But on Monday night, the IID - widely considered the key vote - refused to approve the current proposal. Many in the Imperial Valley fear the county's $1 billion farm industry could be permanently crippled by requirements that some fields be left unplanted.
"It feels like we are the little mouse about to be pounced on by an eagle," says farmer Al Kalin, who's grown sugar beets, alfalfa, carrots, and bermuda grass here his whole life. "We are being asked to fallow grounds so that golf courses and more houses can be built. I don't see where the farmers of Imperial Valley have done anything ... to deserve this."
The IID's move puts pressure on the other three boards to either make concessions or face a federal cutoff.
"Fallowing our fields is anathema to people in this county," says IID spokeswoman Sue Giller. "The board felt there were too many unknowns and that the deal was good for the coast but not for this community."
Because a "no" vote by any of the four boards kills the deal, many say the transfer is dead. But others insist it's not over. "We still have until the end of the year to resolve the IID's concerns," says San Diego's Cushman. "We still hope key issues can be resolved."
Adding to the pressure for an agreement has been the Colorado River's recent drought, which has depleted Lake Mead and other reservoirs as much as 50 feet.
Last week, Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley strongly reemphasized to state authorities that the Interior Department will enforce "the law of the river" - the federal mandate delineating how much water states get.
He said if California doesn't lessen its use of Colorado River water, the state would lose 800,000 acre-feet of water beginning Jan. 1, 2003 - enough water for 1.6 million households.
"The consequences of not meeting this deadline are very frightening," says Dennis Cushman, spokesman for the San Diego Water Authority. "All of us [are] working at a furious pace to look into various terms and agreements."
While other water boards prepare to vote, environmentalists are decrying what they feel is a water grab that will hurt the Salton Sea, California's largest lake, one of the world's most productive fisheries, and a wetland refuge for millions of migrating birds. By diminishing farm runoff, the water sale would likely drop the waterline, increase salinity, and expose the sea bed to winds.
"Our biggest concern is that the Bush administration has not produced a restoration plan for the sea," says Peter Galvin of the Center for BioDiversity. "They are marching forward with this water transfer that will have a great effect, but don't have plans to mitigate that threat up front."
Both the MWD and San Diego have stated they have plans for other water sources should the deal not go through.
Those include possible plans to call on other reserves and buy water from farmers in the north. They might also include investment in desalination and recycling projects that could add billions of gallons to water supplies - but also cost more to consumers.
"We have spent years coming up with viable alternatives, projects and programs to get water to our customers should we get cut off by the federal government," says Bob Muir of the MWD.