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
Mary Nichols, who was secretary of resources for California when the agreement was negotiated, says that the state stepped in to help the Salton Sea when many were content to see its water level drop. She says that the initial state money committed under the agreement “was intended to be seed money, a down payment. We always believed at the end of the day, the federal government would step in.”
Nichols maintains that many of the expensive plans put together locally to restore the sea are aimed more at turning the area into a tourist center to propel the local economy and may include work not needed for the environment itself.
The agreement also established a $20 million socioeconomic-impact mitigation fund, but talks on how to use the money have stalled due to disagreements among economists over the effects of the water transfers.
In contrast to many Southern California politicians, who are heavily backed by builders, the campaign-finance reports for the members of the Imperial Irrigation District who approved the water transfer show no contributions from coastal home developers. Instead the reports show a pattern of smalltime donations by homemakers, independent farmers, small-town merchants, hay salesmen, and country doctors and lawyers. They show members running simple campaigns with some ads in local papers and purchases of food and beer for campaign events.
After once failing to approve the transfer in 2002, the board approved it reluctantly in October 2003, surrounded by a posse of big-city lawyers and federal officials. “They had a gun to their head,” Morgan had told me.
Its approval closely followed a Bureau of Reclamation study concluded in August 2003, in response to the drought, which showed that the federal government could cut water delivered to the Imperial Valley because farmers were wasting it. I remember Johnson, at the bureau’s lower-Colorado office, saying that agriculture could shrink by 30 percent in the years ahead.
Local agricultural-industry sources say that farmers are going deep into the Mexican desert to farm and even have been taking trips to China to investigate whether they can grow vegetables there instead of in California.
The Imperial Valley, some say, retains vestiges of a feudal system in which landless peasants work under harsh conditions for large landholders. As I walk through El Centro, it’s clear it has seen better days. Many of the storefronts are empty, and the buildings and sidewalks are well-worn.
I am here to meet Eric Reyes, a former high school civics teacher who left Calexico High School to help organize farm workers and fight for social and economic justice. Reyes, who heads the Institute for Socio-Economic Justice, tells me that an initial study on the effects of the transfers showed that, within 15 years, they will drain $190 million out of the valley’s economy due to fallowing, with the biggest losses falling on farm workers and numerous small companies that sell supplies and services to farmers.
So far, economic studies show that the losses have been minimal, but Reyes says it is hard to document the harm inflicted on farm laborers, many of whom commute from Mexicali to hiring halls on the U.S. side of the border in Calexico as early as 2 a.m. in the cold nights of winter, when vegetable growing peaks in the area. The study, funded by the IID, shows a reduction in farm-labor jobs and in income for agricultural-services businesses from the outset of the water-transfer program, which water agencies will ramp up in the years ahead.
“It’s only going to get higher,” he says. The farmers get paid, the IID continues to see revenue, and developers get water for their projects over the mountains, says Reyes, but the farm workers in the Imperial Valley and small businesses lose out. “Politically, we’re on the bottom end,” he observes.
As the federal government develops its shortage guidelines for the Colorado, urban water agencies like the MWD are expected to pursue additional water-transfer agreements with farmers, Kightlinger admits.
At Imperial Irrigation District headquarters, water officials are preoccupied with how to free up enough water to meet their existing transfer obligations. “The problem is this is a real challenge,” said John Eckhardt, executive program manager for the district. “We’re one of the most efficient in the country and so are the on-farm [irrigation] systems.” In the face of the coming water shortage guidelines, IID has adopted a resolution against more transfers of water to urban areas.
“More transfers here would be disastrous,” says Reyes, who notes that the “MWD is the heavy” in the Imperial Valley as the de facto representative of land developers. “The local people don’t understand the power they have is incredible.”
Resigned, these days Reyes is urging local farm workers and others in the community to stand up for their rights and seek a share of the wealth that is changing hands in the massive water transfers.
I leave the lush, green Imperial Valley and head to San Diego, where housing developments have sprouted all the way into the mountain foothills far east of the sea.
“We’re growing in leaps and bounds,” says Halla Razak, Colorado River program manager for the San Diego County Water Authority, who explains that the transfer was needed to accommodate projected growth. San Diego is planning to increase conservation to 10 percent and make more use of water recycling, perhaps even seawater desalination. However, Razak says that growth may also require increased transfers in the future.