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California and the West

Mediator Will Try to Keep Water War From Boiling Over

Resources: Imperial Valley farmers and the MWD are fighting over Colorado River allotments. What agricultural interests claim as a right, critics call an inexcusable waste.


HOLTVILLE, Calif. — As water cascades from sprinklers onto a field of red potatoes, farm manager Bartt Ries explains Imperial Valley's irrigation policy.

"We flood, we furrow, we drip, we sprinkle," said Ries, who manages the fields for Vessey & Co. of El Centro, which has 6,000 acres under cultivation. "We do anything we need to. Water is the only advantage we have here."

But what Ries sees as an advantage, some see as an outrage. The irrigation practices of Imperial Valley farmers are being branded by some state legislators and the mammoth Metropolitan Water District of Southern California as wantonly wasteful and a threat to the state's economy and future growth.

On Thursday, the MWD will carry its dire message to a negotiating session in Los Angeles with an Interior Department mediator working on behalf of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

The mediator is trying to keep this classically California confrontation between big cities and big farms from erupting into litigation and political truculence that could disrupt, if not destroy, efforts to ensure an adequate supply of water for the entire region.

Bruce Kuhn, the Imperial Irrigation District's board president, says the city-centric MWD just does not understand farming. "Conserving water while growing crops isn't as easy as sticking a brick in the toilet tank," he said.

Still, the numbers are stark: 16 million people in six Southern California counties use 3.5 million acre-feet of water each year.

By comparison, the 135,000 people of the Imperial Valley use 3.1 million acre-feet of water, 98% of it to irrigate 500,000 desert acres of crops.

With Southern California scrambling to meet an anticipated 37% increase in water demand in the next two decades, it is no wonder that thirsty eyes have turned to Imperial Valley and the alleged irrigation sins of its farmers.

The farmers have heard it all before and are unfazed. Imperial district officials are ready--even eager--to tell federal mediator David Hayes what they think is really behind the MWD's concern about irrigation efficiency.

"They want to steal our water," Imperial board member Don Cox said matter-of-factly. "One way to get it is to charge us with wasting water."

In the zero-sum game of water, more water for the farmers of Holtville means less water for the heavily populated regions of coastal Southern California, which have had to learn to conserve water at the same time usage in Imperial County has risen.

"I urge you to recognize that you have taken the side of the largest water waster in the state," David Freeman, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, wrote to an environmentalist who dared side with Imperial Valley.

Imperial farmers are unapologetic that Imperial, the Coachella Valley Water District and two smaller agricultural districts, under a 1931 federal agreement, get 85% of California's share of the Colorado River.

"I'm a farmer in the Imperial Valley and I grow a lot of wheat, sugar beets and onions," Imperial board member Lloyd Allen told the MWD board recently. "Those crops use a hell of a lot of water, and we've got a hell of a lot of water."

The desert districts get the lion's share of the Colorado River based on the principle of "first in time, first in right." Imperial Valley was pulling water from the Colorado River four decades before the Colorado Aqueduct and Hoover Dam were delivering water from the river for Los Angeles and elsewhere in Southern California.

Desert Transformed by Water

With a supply of water that is cheap and unlimited, Imperial Valley farmers overcome the heat, the poor soil and plagues of pests to grow nearly a billion dollars worth of crops a year. All of this in a stony desert that was never meant for planting.

It is an article of faith among farmers here that cheap water is what makes agriculture economically viable. Water rights are seen as being as inviolable as property rights.

"Whenever I need water for wheat, I just pick up the phone and I say, 'Lord, give me 10 foot of water for two days,' " Allen said, as MWD board members listened in wide-eyed annoyance. "The national average for wheat in the U.S. is about 35-36 bushels per acre, but our average is 130-140. And that's because when we want water, we just call for it and get it."

There have been significant improvements in the Imperial district's maze of canals and pumping systems to reduce seepage and other water losses--more than $100 million of it financed, ironically, by Metropolitan. But the drive to get farmers to spend money on more efficient irrigation in their fields has had only limited success.

"We literally can't get guys to buy water probes to check [water loss] in their soil because water is so cheap," said David Bradshaw, Imperial's irrigation supervisor.

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