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Imperial Valley Is Thirsting for a Water Fight

Farmers, who pressed for a suit after the U.S. cut the county's Colorado River allotment, say their livelihood is threatened.

March 02, 2003|Seth Hettena | Associated Press Writer

HEBER, Calif. — The field of wheat across the street was a sand dune when John F. Menvielle was a boy growing watermelons. "Ditch riders," or zanjeros, got you your water. And when the Great Depression blew through town, you could buy land for pennies on the dollar.

The son of French immigrants, Menvielle has lived almost all of his 95 years in California's Imperial Valley, a desert where few wanted to live, much less farm. But he sweated it out, relying on hard work and plentiful Colorado River water to get him through droughts, floods and pests.

These days, the future of the $1-billion farm economy in California's poorest county has never been more uncertain. The biggest fear of valley farmers came true when the Interior Department cut the amount of Colorado River water available for Imperial Valley farms and shipped much of it to the coast.

"This is the biggest threat I've seen so far. They're trying to take our water away," said Menvielle, clutching a cane beneath the boughs of an Indian laurel tree on his farm.

"I'll tell you: I'll never give up water to San Diego."

Imperial is fighting back. The valley's water board has filed suit against Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton to block her from cutting the valley's water, arguing that the Imperial Valley's rights are guaranteed under contracts that date back to the 19th century.

A federal judge in San Diego has scheduled a hearing on Imperial's request for a preliminary injunction this month. If the judge doesn't restore the valley's water, farmers will see their water deliveries cut by 15%, board members said.

Outside the valley, Imperial is widely viewed as wasteful.

About a trillion gallons pour through the desert valley each year, making Imperial the nation's largest irrigation project. A third of that water is farm runoff that flows into the Salton Sea, California's biggest lake. In 1988, the state found that Imperial was wasting water because of too much runoff.

There's more, critics say.

Imperial farms use gravity to water crops, the most inefficient irrigation method around. And the valley produces mostly hay, a thirsty yet low-value crop. Menvielle's son, John-Pierre, who runs the family enterprise, farms 850 acres of mostly grass, wheat and alfalfa using enough water to supply about 10,000 homes for a year.

Farmers defend themselves by saying that this is the way it has always been in the valley and that it's a way of life they have worked hard for. Few can tell that story better than John F. Menvielle.

He was 3 months old when his parents brought him to the valley and reared him in an adobe ranch house. Chinese immigrants, who came to build the railroads, worked in the fields. Railroad conglomerates and land speculators ran the valley. San Diego, about 100 miles west, was home to fewer than 20,000 people.

"San Diego, in the early days, they didn't want the water," Menvielle said, rubbing his gnarled hands together. "They had nothing to do with the Colorado River."

In the Imperial Valley, the river meant everything. It flowed through Mexico via earthen canals dug by mule trains. Farmers rode out to the zanjeros, who lived by the canals, and asked them to open the gate that let water flow onto farms.

Crops could be ruined by floods or drought. Mexican farmers often tapped the Colorado, leaving Imperial's canals dry. Earthquakes would break up ditches, preventing water from reaching crops.

A short man with warm brown eyes who is hobbled by a knee that he injured in a 1928 high school football game, Menvielle had a knack for farming and slowly acquired land over the years. He met his wife when he chased down a boy stealing her watermelons. They married 65 years ago and had four sons.

Over time, life got easier. Hoover Dam and later the All-American Canal assured a stable supply of water and allowed the valley to bloom. Menvielle acquired land bit by bit until he had 1,500 acres.

But times have changed and so has the American West. Today, Imperial's farmers feel the sprawling coastal cities pounding on their door demanding water.

"Nobody wanted to take our water before, until they started building all those homes in San Diego and Los Angeles," Menvielle said. "Those people don't know nothing about water. They just think you open up the faucet and that's it."

Rapid growth around the West prompted the Interior Department to demand that California sign a deal by Dec. 31 to reduce its overreliance on the Colorado.

The linchpin of that deal was the sale of up to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year from Imperial to San Diego. But on Dec. 9, the region's water board, under pressure to protect the farm-based economy, rejected the deal.

Shortly after that, the Interior Department cut Imperial's water supply by 11% and shipped much of that water to the Metropolitan Water District, which serves Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

Farmers pressed the board to fight back and it did, filing suit last month in U.S. District Court in San Diego. But John-Pierre Menvielle wonders whether it's a battle the valley can win.

"I don't think the farmers realize the value of this water," the 58-year-old farmer said. "The threat is, we are only 140,000 people, and there's 17 million on the coast, and they want our water.

"That's the threat," he said, "because it could dry us up."

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