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At what cost water?

A canal crossed by many illegal migrants is being lined to prevent seepage. The potential for more drownings sparks criticism.

July 15, 2007|Alison Williams | Times Staff Writer

Holtville, Calif. — At the far end of the Terrace Park Cemetery, between the grassy field of flower-dotted gravestones and a makeshift dump, lie rows of numbered bricks in the dirt, some with names and some that read "John Doe." Among those buried here, mostly illegal immigrants, are at least 40 who drowned in the nearby All American Canal.

The 82-mile canal that carries water west from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley has claimed the lives of more than 500 people since 1942, including almost 180 in the last 10 years. It's about to get more treacherous.

About 23 miles of the canal are being lined with concrete to conserve water by preventing it from seeping into the ground. When the lining is complete, water will flow faster and the canal sides will be steeper, slicker and harder to scale. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began work in June.

The original 1994 plan for the lining project called for "large mammal escape ridges," or steps, to make it easier for both humans and animals to get out of the water. But the Bureau of Reclamation no longer intends to include escape ridges, saying they cause structural instability and leakage.

Critics of the lining say it is illegal to drop the safety provisions. And they say there are reasons, not stated in the official record, why the escape ridges aren't being included. The canal, which is operated by the Imperial Irrigation District, runs parallel to the Mexican border -- less than a mile from it in places -- and is a long barrier to people trying to make their way north.

"If the IID's kids were playing in the canal, I assure you they would put those ridges in," said John Hunter of Poway, in San Diego County. He is founder of Water Station, an organization that provides water in the desert for migrants. Hunter said that, at the very least, the bureau should roughen the surface of the concrete lining, as was done with the Central Arizona Project, a long canal that takes water from the Colorado River east to Phoenix and Tucson.

Hunter's views are shared by his brother, congressman and Republican presidential hopeful Duncan Hunter of El Cajon. Although he takes a hard line against illegal immigration, Duncan Hunter wrote a letter last month to officials in charge of the canal advocating the safety ridges. He wrote that "the loss of human life in the canal to date has been a costly consequence to past indifference."

Lining the earthen canal will provide California more water at a time when the state has been ordered to reduce its take from the Colorado River. The unlined canal has been losing millions of gallons a year to seepage. But that water has been flowing underground to Mexico, where it has sustained wetlands and been used by farmers since the early 1940s. When that supply dries up, critics of the lining project, including Mexican President Felipe Calderon, warn that fields will be fallowed, possibly prompting even more unemployed Mexicans to risk crossing the border and the canal.

"The lining ignores the serious environmental, safety or economic consequences to the region," said Malissa Hathaway McKeith, a Los Angeles lawyer and Colorado River water expert who represented an alliance of Mexican business and environmental interests opposed to the lining.

The All American Canal is surrounded by desert, soft sand dotted with a few shrubs and virtually no shade. The temperature in the summer routinely hits 115 degrees. Most people attempt to cross the 175-foot-wide canal at night. Some use flimsy rafts. Many of the victims have died in the section of the canal that is to be lined.

Drowning victims who can be identified and claimed by family members are returned to their home countries -- primarily Mexico. The others are buried in the potter's field at the rear of the Terrace Park Cemetery.

Bureau of Reclamation officials say they will reduce the risk of drowning by installing ladders along the lined portion of the All American at 375--foot intervals on both sides of the canal. Jim Cherry, the bureau's Yuma, Ariz., area manager, said, "I believe these ladders will make the canal more safe. Right now, there is no way for people in the water to get out. My concern as an operator is that those ridges would become full of algae -- I'd much rather have a ladder to grab on to."

But ladders were of no help to U.S. Border Patrol agent Richard Goldstein, who drowned in May in the nearby Coachella Canal, which was completely lined and fitted with ladders by 2006. Authorities believe Goldstein had gone into the water to rescue his dog, which was found wet but alive next to Goldstein's vehicle.

The Coachella Canal claims about one person a year. But that canal, which joins the All American near Yuma, runs at a northwesterly angle toward the Coachella Valley and isn't a barrier to most migrants.

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