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San Diego officials have offered farmers in California's Imperial Valley an additional $165 million to take some of their land out of production to allow irrigation water to be shipped to the city.
The water would replace Colorado River water that California is scheduled to lose under a multistate agreement.
The offer came as negotiators met in Sacramento with state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols, racing to beat both the end of the legislative session this week, and a year-end deadline for California's plan to reduce its overuse of the Colorado River.
The San Diego County Water Authority agency called its offer ``a monumental step forward.'' It would pay farmers not to farm, which would let the irrigation water be used instead by San Diego.
The San Diego authority said its offer would meet Imperial Valley farmers' requirements with a variety of guarantees, including that farmers will not have to permanently idle their land to save irrigation water.
The proposal would restructure the first 15 years of a 75-year water transfer agreement it signed with the Imperial Irrigation District in April 1998.
The authority is offering to pay $130 million over that 15 years, and an additional $35 million would go for incentives to farmers who agree to fallow, or leave idle, their land. The proposal would idle about 10 percent of the farmland, on a rotating basis, for 10 years.
A sticking point remains the Salton Sea, an artificial lake southeast of Palm Springs that was created when irrigation water breached a canal in 1905, and kept alive since with lost irrigation water. Scientists fear its increasing salinity will eventually kill the lake. It already is 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, but teems with wildlife and is a major stopping spot for migratory birds.
Imperial Irrigation District spokeswoman Susan Giller said the San Diego proposal appeared to limit the water authority's cost for preserving the sea.
The district said earlier this month it would be willing to consider a fallowing plan spanning five years, buying that much time for Southern California water managers to find ways to protect the Salton Sea while channeling unused irrigation water to San Diego.
California has until Dec. 31 to offer a plan outlining how it will cut its annual use of Colorado River water. The Interior Department has threatened to cut off the extra water by year's end if the state misses the deadline it accepted in an agreement with six other Western states.