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Water Plan Feeds Division, Worry Among Farmers

October 02, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

BRAWLEY, Calif. — When people in San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento talk about water, they are talking about a commodity -- a crucial ingredient of future economic growth.

But here in the Imperial Valley, the farmers view water as their birthright. They speak passionately about the sacrifices made by their grandparents and great-grandparents who came to this brutal desert and, with grit and copious amounts of cheap water, turned the balky soil into billion-dollar-a-year agricultural bounty.

The days of unlimited water may soon be over. The place that, before the advent of irrigation and the "taming" of the Colorado River, was known as the Valley of the Damned, is facing a fundamental and wrenching change in how water is distributed among the farmers who till half a million acres.

The Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the valley's water rights, is on the verge of selling some of that water and requiring farmers to leave a portion of their fields dry.

"When my grandfather gave his water rights to the district, he never thought he'd lose control of them," said Michael Morgan, whose family farms 7,000 acres. "This water sale is going to set a tone of defeatism for the entire valley."

Morgan is among a group of farmers who are suing Imperial -- the nation's largest agricultural irrigation district -- over the proposed water sale. They allege that they have been shut out of the negotiations, even though their livelihoods are at stake.

Despite seven years of discussion, negotiation and near-daily local newspaper coverage, farmers remain deeply divided over a water deal that would, for the first time, limit the valley's allocation from the Colorado River and require them to leave some of their fields fallow so water could be sold to thirsty and politically influential coastal cities.

Key details -- about which farmers will be allowed to sell their water, how much they will be allowed to sell and how much they will be paid -- remain to be settled, even as the Imperial district's governing board is scheduled today to debate, and possibly vote on, a 75-year agreement to sell water to the San Diego County Water Authority.

Although the Imperial Valley Farm Bureau is helping the district shape the plan and the "Dutch auction" -- in which farmers are to bid against one another for the right to sell water -- other farmers are challenging the irrigation district's right to arrange the water sale without their approval.

"A majority of farmers feel disenfranchised," said Heidi Kuhn, who, with her husband, runs a dairy ranch and cheese plant. "These are farmers who are not powerful, who do not belong to the Farm Bureau. They're the ones in the ditch-bank working their farms."

The San Diego authority and the Coachella Valley Water District voted unanimously last week to approve the deal. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, whose aqueduct would carry the water to San Diego, voted 26 to 1 in favor.

The Imperial district board is split. Last December a similar deal was defeated, 3 to 2.

One of the board members who opposed the deal then appears to have switched sides and to be ready to provide the vote needed for passage.

But even before any vote is taken, a member of one of the valley's most prominent farm families has announced plans to oppose the prospective "swing-vote" member in next year's board election.

John-Pierre Menvielle, a third-generation farmer, plans to run on an anti-water-sale platform for the seat held by Bruce Kuhn, who is Heidi Kuhn's cousin by marriage. The Kuhns are not the only Imperial Valley family divided on the issue; in some families, brothers are at odds.

"This water deal is not good for the Imperial Valley," Menvielle said. "The directors who will be voting for it will be voting to sell out the Imperial Valley, its water rights and its future."

Beyond the litigation and politicking, there are indications that opposition to the water sale -- or at least, apprehension over the details -- may be pushing together two groups thought to be bitter enemies: farmers and the United Farm Workers union.

UFW members are concerned that no plan is in place to compensate farm workers who will be jobless when land is fallowed so water can be sold. A related concern is that, of six members appointed so far to a committee to distribute money to people and businesses harmed by the water sale, only one is Latino. This is in a county whose population is 72% Latino.

"We need to invest in our community," said UFW supporter Eric Reyes. "We need to keep our community whole."

Jesse Silva, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, conceded that much of the heavy lifting for implementing the water sale lies ahead. And he chuckled at city residents' surprise at divisions among the farmers.

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