Imperial Valley Confronts its Water Future

Peter Osterkamp hopes his generation of farmers isn't the last in the Imperial Valley. (Photo: Krissy Clark)

Clichés about water in California can seem more abundant than the water itself these days.  But that doesn’t make the clichés any less true.

There’s that Mark Twain saw about how “whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’,” and the line about how water flows uphill toward money.  And then there’s the time Twain fell into a California river and “came out all dusty.”

All those quips seemed fairly dead-on when I was down in the desert of southeastern California recently.  I was reporting for two radio stories on how Imperial Valley farmers are facing the double wallop of an eleven-year drought (and counting) in the Colorado River basin, and the expected effects of climate change.  Recent models suggest that Lake Mead — the giant reservoir that stores Colorado River water for Imperial farmers and much of the Southwest — has a 50% chance of drying up in the next 50 years.  Talk about dusty.  And because the Colorado is so over-allocated already, no water is left by the time the river reaches — make that attempts to reach — the Colorado delta in Mexico.  More dust.

That cliché about water flowing toward money actually cuts both ways in the Imperial Valley.  It once benefited farmers here.  As Marc Reisner reminds us in his seminal book, Cadillac Desert, the main reason this piece of desert can grow anything, let alone supply the U.S. up to 90% of its winter vegetables, is thanks to a handful of wealthy land owners and railroad magnates. In the early 1900s they helped secure priority rights to about a fifth of the Colorado River’s total flow, funded construction of irrigation canals through nearly 100 miles of desert, and later used their considerable political clout to help convince the federal government to improve those canals and build Hoover Dam. Though, to be fair, the canals are completely gravity fed.  So the water never technically flowed uphill to Imperial Valley.

But as populations continue to grow in California cities, and farmers’ political clout shrinks, water has started flowing away from Imperial Valley, up over the coastal range, to Los Angeles and San Diego.  Phoenix and Las Vegas are thirsty for some of it too. California cities are already paying farmers to fallow some of their fields and to make their operations more water-efficient.  In exchange, farmers have agreed to start transferring more than 300,000 acre-feet of water annually to cities, enough to serve about 500,000 households.

A dry irrigation channel alongside a fallowed field in the Imperial Valley.

Farmers still have rights to more than two million acre-feet, but if the drought continues and climate models are correct, they may be pressured to give up more.  John Pierre Menvielle, a retired farmer on the Imperial Irrigation District Board, says farmers can’t afford to transfer more water without doing real damage to the agricultural economy, though they may not have a choice.  “We do worry about the voting populace on the coast.  You’ve got 17 million votes over there.”  Then he squints his eyes and adds “that’s why we have lawyers,” lending credence to Twain’s water-is-for-fightin’ remark.

Doug Kenney, of the Western Water Policy Institute at the University of Colorado, says the tug-of-war over water between farmers and cities is more complicated than just who has the most money or political clout.  “It’s not just the agricultural community that wants to keep its water.  The urban community typically likes to be surrounded by an agricultural community, and its viewed as a valuable amenity.” But at some point, Kenney says, economics wins.  “If the cities need more water, and that water is currently in use by farms, and the cities are willing to pay 10, 20, and maybe 100 times more for that water than the farmer can, at some point that water has to move to the cities.”

But if climate in the Colorado River basin continues its arid trajectory, a massive water transfer away from farms to support more urban growth has risks. “If you’re a farmer and one year comes along and you only have half your normal water supply, well, you can probably get by,” says Kenney.   But cities are less flexible in a drought.  If “the city grows up on that water supply, and then you have a situation where one year there’s only half of that supply, it’s a little more problematic,” he says.

Whiskey may be for drinking, but contemplating the future of this corner of California in the face of dwindling water supplies, is pretty sobering.

  • pamschel

    THE MEXICAN RIGHT TO ALL THE WATER THAT FLOWS IN THE COLORADO RIVER.

    Any water “freed up” from El Centro farmers, who no right to sell their usufructuary-only water right and who in the relatively short time they have owned land on the river have wasted scads of water for decades for non-beneficial uses such as growing 8 crops of alfalfa per year. When these hog farmers agreed to change the use of the water from agriculture, they violated the first rule of western water rights which is that a change of use leads to a jeopardy of water rights. The ‘freed up” waters must now be permitted to flow to Mexico and none of it can legally be removed from the river to be diverted to San Diego or to any other place for any amount of money. This is because the 1944 USA/Mexico Colorado River treaty gives Mexico the first right to any water so “freed up” and because Mexico also has an inchoate right under USA law as an historical prior appropriator of the entire flow of the Colorado, just as the USA Indians have the same right under the US Supreme Court Winter’s Doctrine. Because of Mexico’s historic use from time immemorial of the full, undammed and undiverted flow of all the water that flows in the Colorado River, Mexico has the right of a USA water law prior appropriator’s to continue to receive the entire flow. Mexico’s beneficial use of the full flow of the river had been, of course, that of maintaining and sustaining the formerly Eden-like conditions of the Colorado River Delta. Because of this historic beneficial use of the water, Mexico has a continued right to keep receiving the full flow of the river and it has the concomitant right to the full restoration of the river delta which has now been ruined by USA greed and lawlessness.

    MEXICO’S INTENTION TO ENFORCE ITS COLORADO RIVER RIGHTS HAS BEEN THWARTED BY EVIL SCHEMING

    The Mexican government had been ready to move to take action on its water rights rights prior to the election of the current Mexican government. In the treaty, the USA agreed to let 1.5 Million Acre Feet flow past the USA to Mexico each year, and the USA further promised that if the USA failed or refused to let at least that amount of river water flow on to the delta, that the USA would reduce its own river diversions by the same amount. The procedure would have been for Mexico to first demand its rights under the 1944 treaty, and then when the USA ignored them as usual the Mexican legislature would follow with their own rejection of the treaty in favor of asserting their right as original appropriators to the full flow of the river. Mexico would have also considered the issue of whether or not the USA yearly treaty violations and the resulting ruination of the river delta was an act of war, and if so, every USA resident of Mexican descent would be expected to take sides with Mexico, and, among other things, to endeavor by military force to bypass and destroy all of the USA’s illegal and warlike dams and diversions now crippling the river.

    The USA, though, under the evil influence of its evil puppet master Isfake (aka “Israel”the synogogue of Satan, the known evil controller of the USA) has been able to trick and distract the Mexicans from worrying about their water rights by employing the following wicked, and intentionally evil strategy:

    THE STRATEGY OF USA/ISFAKE TO RUIN AND DOMINATE MEXICO

    The USA and its evil exemplar, controller and partner the evil synagogue of satan Isfake (‘Israel’) plotted first to enable and to encourage Mexican citizens to become dependent over the years on drug prohibition profits. The God-given cannabis plant, which had been appreciated and enjoyed in Mexico for centuries suddenly became strictly prohibited in the USA. Cannabis possession and cultivation in the USA was made an automatic state prison offense in the ’60′s but at the same time by the same evil design, cannabis was not prohibited at all in Mexico. In another example of a related devil strategy, methamphetamine ingredients were permitted to be sold freely in Mexico but at the same time methamphetamine ingredients such as ephedra for the common cold and red phosphorous for making matches was severely prohibited in the USA. These evil manipulations had the intended result that Mexican government officials and Mexican citizens alike became dependent upon the vast profits which were sure to arise under the artificial prohibition laws. The schemes to prohibit and criminalize such products in the USA but not in Mexico resulted in government employees and drug producers and ordinary Mexicans all working together like one big happy family to prosper from the artificial markets so created. As soon as the hook was set, the USA/Isfake scheming devils pulled the rug out from Mexico by suddenly forcing Mexico to join the USA in its fake “war on drugs”.
    Mexico obediently changed its former drug policy of tolerance and liberty and the widespread sharing of drug profits with all citizens and the government started putting their former partners the ordinary citizens of Mexico under the oppression of martial law just as has been the case in USA since the ’60′s. To the ordinary Mexican citizen, the “war on drugs” change of policy was a brazen act of treachery by their former partners in the government. The Mexican ordinary citizens, having enjoyed lives much more free from governmental treachery and interference than the USA’s sheep-like citizens, declared war right back on the government with the result that the government itself has become non-functional, unable to provide peace and security to its citizens let alone to be able to enforce its legitimate water rights.

    The USA/Isfake grand strategy of causing chaos and infighting in Mexico has rendered Mexico helpless to prevent further oppression and all manner of rip offs and thefts of the people and resources of Mexico, and not just of their water rights.
    THE FUTURE
    believers can be consoled by bible history. For one example, at the same time as the disobedient Children of Israel conspired to kill Jesus, who is loved and appreciated by the common man in Mexico, Allah was at the same time preparing plans to bring down Vernichten on the Children of Israel so as to place them among the losers as they had been warned would happen in case of lack of Godly submission. Allah is the best of the secret planners. Allah is the All- Seer and the All-Hearer. Allah knows exactly what each of these unbelievers does and thinks and he has assigned individual angels as record keepers for each one of us. These greedy ones are sure to be the ultimate losers as they work their injustices. God has a special result – ruination – as the outcome for those who greedily work ruination on the earth, just as he has a beautiful plan for believers who do good deeds for one another and who decline to do actions he has prohibited and who maintain strong faith that he will fulfill his promises to the believers. We know that submission to Allah will provide us with the opportunity to be present for the full restoration of the Colorado River Delta and for the development of the entire earth into Eden-like conditions where there will be no more tears, sickness or death for the faithful and obedient believers.