BRAWLEY, Calif. -- Long before the sun crests the Chocolate Mountains, the Imperial Valley zanjeros are setting the water gates on the 1,675 miles of canals that are the arteries of this desert farming oasis at the southernmost fringe of California.
Even today, a century after the original settlers subdued the land and planted the first winter vegetables here, the valley's diminishing clan of Anglo farmers still rises to meet the irrigation district zanjeros, or ditch riders, on the canal banks.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 22, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 317 words Type of Material: Correction
Water transfer -- A story in Section A on Saturday about a pending water transfer between the Imperial Irrigation District and San Diego incorrectly stated that the water cost up to $400 a cubic acre. The correct figure is $400 an acre-foot, the approximate amount of water consumed by two average families in a year.
"Most farmers want to make sure they're getting the water they ordered," said John Pierre Menvielle, a third-generation vegetable and hay grower. But more than that, said the raspy-voiced Menvielle, the dawn encounters on the canal banks are a link with the past and an affirmation of a way of life in one of the country's most productive agricultural areas, known as America's "Winter Salad Bowl."
Steeped in agrarian traditions, this desert valley is about to give up a large share of its most precious commodity in a water deal that will make some people rich, cost others jobs, and return some fields to the dunes and dust from which they emerged. The prospect has created sharp divisions in a society that was once proudly united in a battle to make the desert bloom.
There are ethnic overtones to the tensions. Many of the biggest farmers hope to secure a windfall from the water transfer, while Mexican American leaders worry about the displacement of farm workers. They argue that the transfer should not be approved unless profits from the water sale are invested in the community.
Yet, as residents' leaders wrangle over the future, their beloved image of a bucolic valley is belied by multiplying trade connections with Mexico and the arrival of speculators whose interests lie more with the market value of water than in maintaining a traditional way of life.
The number of farming families has declined from more than 2,000 in the 1970s to fewer than 400 today. More than half of the valley's agricultural land is held by absentee owners.
Under an agreement reached this week by key California water agencies, billions of gallons of Colorado River water would be shifted annually from Imperial Valley farms to urban San Diego County. The agreement is the state's best hope of avoiding a federal cutback of its ration of Colorado River water.
Still, there is no guarantee that the Imperial Irrigation District will approve the transfer. Its members are split on the issue, which will be discussed Tuesday at a board meeting in El Centro.
Imperial County is feeling mounting pressure from Sacramento and Washington to approve the transfer by the end of the year. Without it, California could face an abrupt reduction in the surplus delivery from the Colorado River it has been receiving for 29 years but to which it is not legally entitled. Imperial Valley farms get most of the water -- about one-fifth of the river's total flow -- that California takes.
If the transfer is approved, it will be the first time in history that the proud farmers here agreed to idle land to make water available for California coastal cities. "Fallowing" used to be the "f" word here and is still an obscenity to many people.
Since the Imperial Valley was settled in the early 1900s, its farmers have staved off one threat after another to their way of life: canals hopelessly clogged with silt, encroachment by hyperactive hydrilla water plants and a U.S. Supreme Court battle that threatened to break up their family lands.
They retaliated with back-breaking work, savvy lawyers and sterile carp to eat the hydrilla. To this day, a handful of prosperous Anglo farmers and businessmen control the civic and political institutions in an area with a majority Latino population and more people living below the poverty line than any other county in the state.
Now, for many here, the fallowing challenge is the greatest test of all.
Speaking at a recent town hall meeting to discuss the San Diego water transfer, Brawley entomologist Clyde Shields fought back tears as he expressed his fears for the valley where his family has lived since his grandfather settled here in 1928.
"If the IID [Imperial Irrigation District] allows fallowing," said Shields, pausing to collect himself, "before long there will be more fallowing and the Imperial Valley will be dried up."
In the back of many minds is the specter of water transfers gone bad, such as the one that turned the green Owens Valley into a dustbowl so that Los Angeles could have water.
But Shields' lament, received in gloomy silence in the Hidalgo Society Hall here, was for an Imperial Valley that in many ways no longer exists.
For all its traditions -- morning encounters on the canals, family gatherings at the Stockmen's Club, gripe sessions at Brunner's Coffee Shop in El Centro, rodeos and high school sports rivalries -- the Imperial Valley is in a state of transition.