Gov. Gray Davis closed out the 2003 legislative year by signing a three-bill package intended to settle the Colorado River water wars. Following the governor’s bill signings, the Imperial Irrigation District narrowly approved the plan, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton signed a new Colorado River water pact with Imperial and three other Southern California water agencies.

The bills removed many of the obstacles that blocked an earlier plan for California to reduce gradually its use of “excess” Colorado River water and to transfer water from Imperial Irrigation District farms to San Diego County homes and businesses. The major sticking points concerned the health of the Salton Sea — which survives largely via agricultural runoff — and species that rely on the sea for habitat, and Imperial Irrigation District fears that it would get stuck with the bill for environmental mitigation.

The bills that Davis signed are:

• SB 277 (Moreno), which authorizes the Department of Water Resources to purchase up to 1.6 million acre-feet of water over 15 years from the Imperial Valley. The department will then sell the water to urban areas, generating an estimated $300 million for Salton Sea restoration.
• SB 317 (Kuehl), which gives the Department of Fish and Game greater flexibility in dealing with “fully protected species,” a category outside the state and federal endangered species acts that covers some species reliant on the Salton Sea. The bill also directs the Resources Agency to prepare a preferred alternative for restoring the Salton Sea.
• SB 654 (Machado), which establishes a joint powers authority to oversee mitigation of impacts on the Salton Sea that result from water transfers to San Diego. The bill also authorizes $50 million in Proposition 50 bond money for Salton Sea restoration, and $235 million in state funds to line the earthen All American and Coachella canals.

Upon signing the bills, Davis declared, “Peace has broken out along the Colorado River.”

The Metropolitan Water District, the Coachella Valley Water District and the San Diego County Water Authority all approved the multi-party deal shortly before Davis took action. The Imperial Irrigation District, which voted 3-2 against an earlier plan in December 2002 — causing the Interior Department to slash the state’s use of Colorado River water — voted 3-2 for the deal in early October. Imperial Director Bruce Kuhn, who switched his vote, conceded that he succumbed to pressure from Washington and Sacramento. Deal opponents in the Imperial Valley say the plan will require farmers to fallow their fields. Deal supporters contend conservation measures funded by the state and urban water users will keep farmers in business.

Under the Quantification Settlement Agreement, the state has 14 years to reduce its use of Colorado River water from 5.3 million acre-feet annually to its longtime legal entitlement of 4.4 million acre-feet per year. Furthermore, the Imperial Irrigation District will sell to the San Diego County Water Authority up to 277,000 acre-feet of water — enough to meet much of the county’s growth needs for decades — for 45 to 75 years. Additionally, all parties agreed to drop existing lawsuits and to cooperate with a new, multistate-federal Colorado River alliance.

While Davis praised the agreement and Norton called it “a historic turning point,” others remained skeptical. Environmentalists, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, complained about weak environmental provisions. And Mexican officials said that lining earthen canals would decrease groundwater recharge in the region, harming farmers south of the border.

In other legislative matters the governor signed the following bills:

• AB 514 (Kehoe), which gives urban areas supplied by the Central Valley Project 10 years to install water meters.
• AB 944 (Steinberg), which permits property and business improvement districts to issue assessment bonds and levy assessments against business owners.
• AB 1244 (Chu), which lets schools apply for modernization funds every 25 years, eliminating a one-time-only restriction.
• AB 1410 (Wolk), which makes transit-oriented development a preferred use when public agencies are selling surplus land.
• AB 1492 (Laird), which doubles penalties and creates new procedures for terminating Williamson Act farmland preservation contracts when there is a contract breach.
• AB 1631 (Salinas), which ends the requirement that schools switch to a multi-track schedule if they convert a single-story structure to a multi-story building.
• SB 68 (Alpert), which establishes the San Diego Bay Advisory Committee for Ecological Assessment and gives the panel until December 31, 2005, to prepare a report.
• SB 114 (Torlakson), which prohibits all subsidies of vehicle dealerships and retail stores of at lest 75,000 square feet that relocate within the same market.
• SB 352 (Escutia), which, with some exceptions, prohibits new schools within 500 feet of a freeway or busy road.
• SB 445 (Kuehl), which requires nonprofit organizations to submit a management plan to the Coastal Commission and Coastal Conservancy before assuming operation of a public accessway to the coast.
• SB 566 (Scott), which allows cities to place quarter- or half-percent sales tax increases before voters. Previously, cities needed special legislation for sales tax increases. The bill also doubles the permissible, cumulative sales tax override in a county to 2%.
• SB 619 (Ducheny), which, among other things, prohibits local governments from requiring conditional use permits for a multi-family residential project of 100 units or less that is proposed in a multi-family zone.
• SB 810 (Burton), which makes clear that regional water quality control boards — not the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — have authority over water quality provisions in timber harvest plans.

Davis vetoed the following bills:

• AB 51 (Simitian), which would have required general plans to identify land use categories that provide for child care facilities. Davis called the legislation a mandate that the state could not afford.
• AB 94 (Chu), which would have permitted cities and counties to increase property tax rates to pay for pensions approved by voters prior to Proposition 13. Davis blocked the bill because it allowed tax increases without voter consent.
• AB 487 (Frommer), which would have required rental car companies to charge a 2.29% fee to fund state highway projects near airports. “I believe it is inappropriate to impose new fees purely for the benefit of one industry,” Davis said in his veto message.
• AB 773 (Strickland), which would have expanded membership of the Ventura County Transportation Commission to include all 10 cities, rather than only three at a time. Davis contended the bill did not reflect a local consensus.