By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Zamora reckons the delta could meet its habitat-conservation goals with as little as another 48,000 acre-feet of fresh water a year from the Colorado River. He remains hopeful and committed to achieving that dream.
West of Mexicali lie a series of small farming communities that will be wiped out once water authorities in the U.S. line the All-American Canal to stop the “waste” of some 70,000 acre-feet of water that now seeps from it and flows to Mexico. There, farmers pump it out of the ground to water their fields. The lining will immediately affect 10,000 acres of farmland and eventually cut water to 34,700 acres, which support more than 7,100 Mexican families, according to Enrique Rovirosa, an economist who lives in Mexicali. He has worked with the Council of Economic Development, a business group in Mexicali, and the U.S. groups Citizens United for Resources and the Environment and Desert Citizens Against Pollution to contest the project in a suit filed in a federal district court in Nevada against the U.S. government.
Typical of the farmers who would be wiped out is Jose Leopoldo Hurtado, who has lived in the Mexicali Valley for 64 years and still farms the land cultivated by his father. He grows cotton and wheat, irrigating it with well water. The lining of the canal will render valueless the three wells he has built at a cost of $150,000 each, not to mention ending his days as a farmer. Other farmers in the area grow vegetables, and many ship their crops to the U.S. for the tables of Los Angeles.
Hydrologists say that lining the canal also will dry out the Andrade Wetlands, which provide important habitat to migratory and native desert birds and plants.
Asked about any Mexican role in how to deal with the growing shortage of water on the Colorado, Sally Spener, spokesperson for the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, is mum. “We have had informal discussions with the Mexican section and will be engaging in formal discussions,” she says.
The commission forwards reports on these talks to the State Department, which then conveys them to the Interior Department, where they come down to the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river.
The bulldozers will be rolling soon to line the All-American Canal, and the water that once flowed to these Mexican lands will be watering the lawns of subdivisions and new developments along the Southern California coast.
“It’s my water. I want it, so I can build more houses” is how Malissa Hathaway-McKeith, at the law firm of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard, & Smith LLP, sums up the motivation of the U.S. when it comes to managing the Colorado River. “The water is an asset of a very poor area,” says the attorney, who is pressing the case for Mexicans on the canal lining. But they have been cut out of the process of managing it, she adds.
As I drive home on the final leg of my journey, the sprawling suburbs of Southern California lie before me yet again. I remember my boyhood, a little more than 40 years ago, when my family would drive to a place in San Diego County called Bonita to buy fruit, vegetables and dairy products for the week at local stands. Farms lined the wild banks of the Sweetwater River, along which grew the cattails my mother would sometimes stop to pick for floral arrangements on the dining-room table.
Today the river and the farms are gone. Homes and highways have replaced them in a path laid by the greed that has been at the root of water politics in Southern California ever since William Mulholland took water from the Owens Valley for Los Angeles.
In the new millennium, the greed has reached far beyond local rivers and the Owens Valley and is stripping the people and the environment of the nation’s fourth longest river, the Colorado. As litigation moves at a glacial pace over the water transfers that are crushing the way of life and starving the environment for water along the river, Los Angeles and other urban areas are busy growing. But they are not far behind in facing their own water shortage.
Some call it progress. Others call it a shame.
Whatever your view, there is no getting around the fact that the glass that was full of Colorado River water just 50 years ago is half empty now — and leaking madly.