California’s Imperial Valley uses more water than several other states combined. Farmers want to avoid big cuts.

By Joshua Partlow

April 16, 2023

Workers harvest romaine lettuce from the fields at Elmore Desert Ranch in Brawley, Calif., last month. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

BRAWLEY, Calif. — Alex Jack has spared little expense in the quest to grow vegetables in the desert with less water.

It has cost him $2.5 million over the years to be on the cutting edge of efficiency, installing underground irrigation under alfalfa and lettuce beds, building aerated reservoirs and a network of pipes and pumps to recycle runoff. But his 3,500-acre farm still guzzles more of the Colorado River each year than some midsize cities.

Now, as the Biden administration moves closer to imposing unprecedented cuts in how much water states can pull from the river, Jack and other commercial farmers in the sun-scorched flatlands of the Imperial Valley are in the crosshairs of those reductions.

The Imperial Valley — a wedge of desert farmland in Southern California on the Mexican border — uses more of the Colorado River than the states of Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and New Mexico combined. To its critics outside California, it is a logical place to cut: The roughly 400 farms served by the Imperial Irrigation District consume the single largest share of a river that is needed by 40 million people. Some of their major crops, such as alfalfa, require lavish amounts of water and are sold for animal feed, including outside the United States.

And yet, these farmers also have some of the oldest legal rights to that water, dating back more than a century to a time before the creation of the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that now oversees how the river is divvied up. And their fields drive a $4 billion industry that employs tens of thousands of people and puts vegetables in supermarkets across the country during the winter.

That dynamic has put farmers such as Jack in a powerful, yet precarious, position. There is an ongoing dispute between California and other states of the Colorado River basin about who must bear the brunt of any future reductions. The Interior Department proposed three options for cuts this week, including one that strictly follows water rights, giving priority to the Imperial Valley’s farmers — and potentially letting the portion of the river that goes to Los Angeles and Phoenix draw down to virtually nothing.

Many river experts consider that politically untenable.

“Is the [Imperial Irrigation District] really going to be allowed to grow alfalfa hay and export it while 10 million people in Los Angeles go without?” said Ted Cooke, who recently retired as the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which distributes the Colorado River in that state.

“Of course not.”

As the negotiations between the states continue in a bid to prevent the federal government from making unilateral cuts this summer, some farmers are seeking to buy new land to secure rights to more water. Jack and other farmers have met with Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton and wrestled with how much they should be paid to voluntarily give up a portion of their supply.

The more than $4 billion Reclamation has to spend from the Inflation Reduction Act on drought resilience is attracting a lot of interest among California farmers. But the Imperial Irrigation District has not yet reached an agreement with the federal government on compensation for cuts. Farmers here say the amounts they’ve heard discussed do not seem enough to pay for more efficient irrigation practices that could save water long-term. The only option, they say, may be to leave ground fallow. That practice ripples through the economy as workers lose jobs, suppliers lose business and produce prices rise.

“Fallowing destroys our ag economy,” said Alex Cardenas, president of the Imperial Irrigation District board of directors. “There are alternatives to fallowing. But there’s significant investment that needs to be made.”

Jack and other farmers in the Imperial Valley say they are willing to negotiate fair compensation but are also ready to defend the lifeblood of their community.

“We have water rights. And we will stand on our water rights,” he added. “If you’re going to fight us, it’s like fighting a warthog. We’ll get in deep and watch our territory.”

Cities and farms face dire trade-offs

On Tuesday, the Biden administration released a 476-page environmental review of the Colorado River and how to handle the fact that the river and its major reservoirs are drying up. The drought since 2000, the Bureau of Reclamation wrote, has been the driest 23-year period in more than a century, and led to a 20 percent decrease in the river’s natural flows.

Without action, or a meaningful change in those trends, “Colorado River reservoirs will continue to decline to critically low elevations, threatening essential water supplies across seven states in the United States and two states in Mexico,” the document reads.

The Interior Department proposed two approaches to conserving water to keep major reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead from crashing. One favors those with senior water rights, such as the Imperial Valley, and makes deep cuts in Arizona and Nevada; the other would cut the same percentage from all three states.

California has already offered to cut back on 400,000 acre-feet of water,with 250,000 of that coming from the Imperial Valley, about 10 percent of its annual usage. If Interior chose its alternative for equal cuts across states, that could mean more than half a million acre feet of additional cuts for California next year. The Imperial Valley would likely shoulder a large portion of that.

That alternative “might seem politically good-sounding, because it’s equal cuts for everyone,” JB Hamby, California’s Colorado River commissioner, said in an interview. “But it’s not on solid legal foundation whatsoever, because it sidesteps the established law of the river.”

Hamby said the goal for California is still to reach an agreement among the other Colorado River states rather than choosing one of the federal alternatives. The bountiful snowfall in the West will likely make the cuts this year a lot less severe than they might have been.

“Had we had another runoff this year that was more like last year and the year before, we would be in a world of hurt at this point,” he said.


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