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
Under pressure from the federal government, and to meet the terms of water-transfer agreements it has entered with urban water agencies, the district is undertaking a series of efficiency measures, including the lining of the All-American Canal to prevent seepage into the ground of water that flows through the desert sand to Mexico.
On my way, I meet Mike Morgan, an eloquent farmer whose grandfather homesteaded land near the south end of the Salton Sea in the 1920s. I park my car and climb into his white truck to take a spin around his spread, where he grows what he calls “yuppie lettuce,” cauliflower, broccoli, melons, sweet corn, and other vegetables and crops that are typical of the farms here in the Imperial Valley. The crops grow in neat rows in the sandy soil, and farm workers harvest what appears to be romaine lettuce in the early-morning light.
Morgan is a self-proclaimed libertarian who believes that big-city water agencies should pay farmers directly for the transfer of water out of the valley instead of the IID. He shows me various water-conservation systems he has installed on his farm, including drip irrigation and high-efficiency sprinklers.
He points out how farmers throughout the valley, himself included, have buried what are called tiles under the fields, namely perforated plastic pipes that collect excess water as it percolates down and whisk it away to drainage ditches that eventually make their way to the Salton Sea. The excess water must be used to leach salts out of the soil if farmers are to continue to grow here. Irrigation ditches across some fields also produce excess “tail water” that flows off the surface of the land into drainage ditches. The IID hopes to use the tail water by building separate basins where it can be pumped and stored for later irrigation of fields.
However, the efficiency measures and the transfer of water used now by farmers to cities will starve the Salton Sea for water.
“I don’t think we can keep all the water here,” says Morgan. However, he vehemently disputes the terms of the transfers that were worked out in a series of binding legal contracts in 2003 known as the federal Quantification Settlement Agreement. Morgan says that the agreement will stick the state with the bill for mitigating the environmental damage caused by cutting off water to the sea and shortchanges the Imperial Valley community, which will suffer as agriculture shrinks under the agreement. The state Department of Water Resources has estimated the cost of various plans so far devised for restoring the sea at up to $10 billion, not to mention one proposal, estimated at $49 billion, that would pipe ocean water to the inland sea.
However, state Senator Sheila Kuehl (D–Los Angeles) says she has seen engineering estimates as low as $1 billion to ?$2 billion.
Dissatisfied with the agreement, Morgan has helped organize a group of farmers who are contesting the water-transfer pact in a series of legal battles pending in a state court in Sacramento. The farmers hold that the IID is merely a trustee that landowners pay to deliver water they actually own.
The group also has hired a Dutch engineering firm, known for its innovative design of water projects, to put together one of the restoration plans for the sea that the state is considering. The state Department of Water Resources will pick a preferred restoration alternative before the year is out and forward it to the Legislature for funding consideration.
“They should pay $800 an acre-foot versus $250 an acre-foot,” says Morgan. “The greatest water heist ever is going on right under your feet.”
I drive down the road to El Centro, through the flat farmland and small communities, to get more local reaction to the Quantification Settlement Agreement. Under the pact, the coastal urban area will get 511,200 acre-feet a year of water to which the IID is entitled through the San Diego County Water Authority and the MWD for $250 an acre-foot. This is a cutback of 16.5 percent for the valley. In addition, the MWD is paying to transfer water from farmers under an agreement with the Palo Verde Valley Irrigation District, to the north, along the river near Blythe, says Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the district.
“If you look at the developed water in the state, some 80 percent or so is being used by agriculture,” says Kightlinger. “There is the potential to conserve and fallow.” Kightlinger envisions farmers and their irrigation districts taking land out of crop production and investing in devices to use water more efficiently so they can sell more of it to urban areas. However, the MWD and water districts across Southern California have yet to get as tough as Las Vegas has on outdoor water conservation, relying instead on public education and a few modest incentives.
Meanwhile, in the Imperial Valley, the IID is administering revenues from the transfer by paying farmers to fallow land, that is, take it out of production. It plans later to build on-farm water-conservation systems to free up water for urban areas. In addition, the San Diego water agency, the IID and the Coachella Irrigation District will set aside $133 million toward restoration of the Salton Sea as the agricultural runoff diminishes. The state has agreed to fund any additional bills for the restoration work as the transfer agreement progresses and eventually turns into pesticide-laden, salt-caked desert some 90,000 acres of land now covered with water, according to Dale Hoffman-Floerke, chief of the Colorado River and Salton Sea office at the California Department of Water Resources.