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Ruling Due in Water Feud

The U.S. is expected to decide if Imperial Valley farmers have been wasting some of their Colorado River supply. It is sought by cities.

June 23, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

The federal Bureau of Reclamation this week is scheduled to issue a ruling addressing one of the most controversial questions in California water politics: Do the farmers of the water-rich Imperial Valley waste water?

At stake is whether the Bush administration will be able to cut back the Imperial Valley's lavish allocation of water from the Colorado River, allowing some of that water to flow to thirsty coastal cities, including Los Angeles and San Diego.

In the Imperial Valley, the pending decision is viewed as the biggest threat to the valley's water rights since pioneers boldly staked their claim to the then-untamed river a century ago. Fearing the worst, two legislators who represent the valley are seeking to block the ruling.

"The general sentiment here is that we're being attacked and we feel very threatened," said Stella Mendoza, a member of the Imperial Irrigation District governing board. "They're trying to take away our livelihood. Without water, this valley is nothing."

But an official in a neighboring water district said that the problem is that Imperial Valley farmers, blessed with cheap and abundant water, have refused to modernize.

Imperial Valley farmers "farm today the same way they did a hundred years ago even though there are better ways of farming now," said Steve Robbins, general manager of the Coachella Valley Water District. Robbins, whose district lost water to the Imperial Valley earlier this year, suggested that farmers there should pay to install drip-irrigation methods rather than flooding their fields.

"They've got to move forward," he said. "Our farmers have done it without someone coming in and subsidizing them."

Regardless of what decision is issued, California water politics appears caught in a cycle that just two years ago was viewed as the nightmare scenario: litigation, federal intervention and contention among politicians and local water officials. One official calls the situation "a meltdown."

The crux of the issue is whether the Imperial Irrigation District, the public agency that holds the valley's water rights, has allowed farmers to waste water even as other parts of the Western United States are gripped by drought.

The dispute centers on the large amount of "tail water" that runs off 500,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley. Should that runoff be seen as a sign of waste or as an environmental asset because it helps replenish the Salton Sea? The sea is a major stopping point for millions of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway.

Water Policies

The decision is set to be made by Robert Johnson, director of the Lower Colorado Region of the Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau is the federal agency responsible for managing Hoover, Davis and Parker dams on the Colorado River and for the storage and delivery of water captured by those dams.

Johnson, a farmer's son with degrees in agricultural and resource economics, is known in water circles for his low-key temperament and vast knowledge of water policies and farming practices in the West. An employee of the Bureau of Reclamation since 1975, he has been regional director for eight years.

But officials of the Imperial Irrigation District believe that they cannot get a fair hearing from Johnson. His top bosses, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley, want to cut Imperial Valley's allocation by about 10% as punishment for the district's refusal to sign a federally supported deal to sell water to San Diego, Imperial Valley officials said.

District lawyers unsuccessfully petitioned in federal court to have Johnson removed from making the decision. Exhibit A in their petition was a lengthy court filing in which Johnson had disagreed, point by point, with assertions made by Imperial Irrigation District General Manager Jesse Silva about what Silva believes is the district's admirable record of using water wisely.

After failing to have Johnson disqualified, Imperial Irrigation District lawyers delivered 23 boxes of documents to Johnson's office in Boulder City, Nev. The index to the documents stretches to more than 200 pages.

After Raley and Norton ordered the Imperial Irrigation District's water allocation reduced, the district sued. In March, U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan agreed with the district that Raley and Norton had overstepped their authority and ordered the cut restored.

'Ugly Diversion'

But at the same time, the judge ordered Johnson to make an in-depth study of water use in the Imperial Valley. The judge said he wanted to review that study before making his final ruling.

In the seven states that depend on the Colorado River, no one gets more of the river's water than the farmers of the Imperial Valley. Their forbears laid claim to the river long before Los Angeles and its suburbs even considered looking there for sustenance.

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