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Farmers Oppose Call to Idle Land

Agriculture: Tempers flare in Imperial Valley as a U.S. deadline nears to cut use of Colorado River water. 'Fallowing is a four-letter word,' a grower says.

June 17, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMORLAND, Calif. — When U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) lectured the farmers of the Imperial Valley that they should let some of their fields go dry so their water can be sold to arid San Diego County, it was bound to be a controversial notion.

But when she warned bluntly that the federal government might just take their water without paying if farmers refuse to fallow, Imperial Irrigation District board member Bruce Kuhn could not restrain himself.

"I would expect nothing less from Feinstein, being the bureaucratic gasbag, pig-eyed sack of crap that she is," Kuhn was quoted as saying last month in a front-page story in the Imperial Valley Press. "They will not take the water without a long, protracted legal battle. She has got her head stuck in the sand."

In the days that followed his outburst, Kuhn was rebuked by farmers and other board members of the Imperial Irrigation District. He and the board apologized to Feinstein. But the sentiments that charged Kuhn have not gone away.

In this forbidding desert, where pioneers a century ago laid claim to Colorado River water that has created a billion-dollar-a-year agricultural empire, there is no deeper fear than that politically powerful outsiders will someday take away that water and order the farmers to let their fields wither and die.

And now Feinstein and others say that is exactly what Imperial Valley farmers must do, on a limited scale, to rescue urban and suburban Southern California from a crippling reduction in their allocation from the Colorado River.

Unless the Imperial Valley farmers fallow a portion of their land so that their water can be used elsewhere, those officials say, the state faces a mandatory cutback from the Colorado River that could devastate the entire state's lifestyle and economy.

Water officials in San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento insist that a plan can take some fields out of cultivation without damaging the agricultural economy of the Imperial Valley. The farmers, whose livelihoods and heritage are at risk, are dubious.

Under an agreement with six other states and the federal government, California has until the end of the year to find a strategy to use less water from the Colorado River. That would keep Arizona, Nevada and other Western states from pressuring the federal government to make good on its oft-repeated threat to cut California's allocation if it cannot find a way to curb its voracious thirst for water.

For years, cities in Southern California have been using water that rightfully belongs to other states, according to federal law. Now those states, facing rapid population growth, want their water back. And California is scrambling to reallocate water from farms to cities.

Kuhn's outburst was fueled by the realization in many farm communities that their once-vaunted political clout is slipping, according to a UC Santa Cruz professor who teaches a course on California's water wars.

"As their political power declines, so does their hold on their water," said Brent Haddad, associate professor of environmental studies and author of "Rivers of Gold," a treatise on fallowing and water sales. "The Imperial Irrigation District was once the most powerful water district in the country. The pioneer families have always expected a frontal assault on their water rights. And now it's here."

The Imperial Irrigation District, which provides water and power for 140,000 residents and 500,000 acres of farmland, is at center stage in this latest California water fight for one simple reason: It began drawing water from the Colorado River decades before Los Angeles and other coastal cities and therefore is entitled to 70% of the state's share of the river.

The Colorado River is Southern California's largest source of imported water, providing at least half of the water distributed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to 17 million people in six counties.

When the Clinton administration began pressuring California to reduce its dependence on the river, the preferred method was for water-rich but cash-poor agricultural districts to sell water to thirsty but affluent coastal regions.

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River Policy Unchanged

If the Imperial Valley farmers were hoping for a better deal from the Bush administration, they've been disappointed.

Colorado River policy is one of the few environmental areas in which the new administration has continued the approach of its predecessor. Soon after Kuhn's diatribe against Feinstein, Bennett W. Raley, assistant interior secretary for water and science, wrote to the irrigation district in support of Feinstein's position.

On Friday, Raley repeated his warning at a hearing in Riverside County of a congressional subcommittee. He told the water and power subcommittee of the House Resources Committee that he understands the Imperial Valley farmers' hard-set feelings about fallowing but that their opposition is not enough to kill the idea.

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