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Imperial Valley Farmers Urged to Conserve Water

The unusual request to voluntarily reduce use comes in a district that enjoys special privileges.

November 20, 2002|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

In another sign that California is mired in drought, farmers from the water-rich Imperial Valley have been asked by local officials to use less water on their fields.

For decades, farmers in the southeast corner of the state have helped themselves to a virtually unlimited supply of cheap water, which they have used to create a $1-billion a-year agricultural economy from a wasteland.

But on Tuesday, farmers received an unprecedented letter from the Imperial Irrigation District asking for a voluntary reduction in water use. It warned that the Colorado River is dangerously low and that reservoirs are being rapidly depleted.

"I ask each and every one of you to look at your operations and take any additional extraordinary measures you can to conserve water," Mike King, manager of the district's water department, wrote to 2,300 farmers and other landowners.

Farmers and ranchers throughout the western U.S. have been hard hit by the drought and many have been forced to watch their fields wither. Tulare County supervisors, for example, have declared an economic emergency and appealed to the federal government for a bailout.

Farmers in the Imperial Valley have been spared because of what are called "senior priority rights" that entitle the Imperial district and two smaller desert water districts to 75% of California's share of the Colorado River.

But with the Colorado River watershed now in its third year of subpar rainfall and snowpack, operators of 500,000 farm acres are being asked to do with less.

A lack of conservation in the past has irritated other drought-beset states. The Imperial district -- at more than 3 million acre-feet a year -- is the biggest user of Colorado River water among the seven states that depend on the winding river.

But as farmers elsewhere have had to survive on reduced water allowances, Imperial Valley farmers have increased the amount they are taking from the Colorado River.

In fact, at the current rate of usage, the Imperial district will have used 110,000 acre-feet above its annual allocation, an amount that, in urban terms, is sufficient for the yearly needs of 800,000 people. The additional water use has been attributed to the valley's lack of rainfall and unusually hot weather.

In his letter, King noted that "because we are such a large water user and are such good water stewards ... the eyes of the West are on us during the epic drought now upon us."

In the short term, however, there is little that the Imperial Irrigation District can do to force farmers to use less water.

The federal government has repeatedly threatened to reduce the Imperial Valley's allocation of Colorado River water, but any such attempt would undoubtedly lead to litigation.

The district is pondering a proposed sale of water to arid San Diego County, but that sale -- which could require farmers to take some fields out of production -- has met with angry and widespread local opposition.

Al Kalin, whose family farms 2,500 acres, said farmers could probably reduce water use significantly by placing water orders with the irrigation district three days in advance. By long-standing custom, farmers merely call the night before they need water, a luxury that is the envy of farmers in other regions.

Because the Imperial district must place overall orders three days in advance with the federal government, there are days that the district has requested more water than farmers need, which can lead to waste.

"Nobody likes change," Kalin said of his idea. "You'll hearing grumbling. But with what we're facing, that's one alternative."

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