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Greed Runs Through It

Illustrations by Max Kornell

Illustrations by Max Kornell

Andres Lopez Gonzalez sits in a dusty plastic lawn chair in back of his tarpaper-covered home in El Mayor, south of Mexicali. Nearby, his wife patiently makes beaded jewelry and his daughter does schoolwork.

Gonzalez holds his hands close to himself in the cold morning air, but dirt beneath his nails is still visible, revealing the life of a workingman struggling in a land with little water. His house has a single kitchen faucet that delivers water too polluted to drink. The yard has no lawn, shrubbery or flower beds. Just an outhouse.

If only a little more fresh water flowed down the Colorado River Delta, he says, it would help restore the population of prized corvina, which he fishes on the sun-drenched sparkling waters of the nearby Gulf of California. Lack of fresh water has caused the corvina population to collapse. To help put groceries on the table and pay for the bottled water the family must drink, Gonzalez supplements his fishing income with assorted odd jobs.

In his aspirations for a better future, Gonzalez is just like Southern Californians. But he and others across the Colorado Delta and Mexicali Valley cannot take water for granted like us, because they live at the brunt end of a salty river that no longer reaches the sea on a regular basis. White patches of salt cover some farm fields on the delta, and in some places, the remains of burned vegetation line the barely flowing river.

Gesturing with his hands under the bright sun, Gonzalez says he’s not sure if people in the U.S. use too much Colorado River water. “I just see we don’t get much water.”

Now, however, the U.S. is crushing the hopes of Gonzalez and his neighbors for a little more water and the better future it could bring. The U.S. is beginning projects that will further cut the already diminished flow of fresh water to Mexico from the Colorado River. With minimal international consultation, the U.S. — along with the Metropolitan Water District and other water agencies — is turning down the spigot to Mexico to divert more water for new housing developments in Los Angeles and cities across Southern California. In so doing, water managers not only will starve Mexico for water, but likely will set up Los Angeles and urban Southern California for water shortages by enabling more growth than the river ultimately can support.

Each new development approved by local city councils flush with builder cash in Southern California — from Playa Vista in Los Angeles to teeming subdivisions in the Inland Empire and San Diego County — represents death by a thousand cuts for the many cultures, economies and nature itself along the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River, which slakes the thirst and waters the crops of 30 million people in seven Western states and Mexico. It’s a case of history be damned to the people on both sides of the border and all along the river who have staked their lives on farming, fishing, ranching and recreation.

Here, along the Southern California coast, the transfers are creating the illusion that Los Angeles and other cities have plenty of water and their residents need not fear shortages. Scientists warn that the development proceeding courtesy of water transfers, which are designed to fuel growth and guard urban areas against only short-term droughts, is but a house of cards. The water empire has overreached in taking water from the Colorado, putting the people of Los Angeles and cities across the Southwest at peril in the face of an inevitable mega-drought.

“We essentially have over-allocated the river,” says Glen MacDonald, a professor of geography at UCLA who has been studying historical water flows on the river. “We have to plan something for significantly longer droughts.”

Persistent shortages already have appeared. Las Vegas is on drought alert, and areas of the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, experience water-pressure drops during the summer. Shortages will grow if the region does not come to grips with its desert heritage. The region, say many scientists and engineers, will have to spend untold billions to better use local water to support the huge populations that have come to the area in the last 50 years. Otherwise, it will wither in the coming decades just as surely as it blossomed after thousands toiled and scores died to build the Hoover Dam during the depths of the Great Depression.

Shortsighted water agencies have been taking the cheap approach to meeting the needs of the region’s growing population by purchasing water from farmers and ranchers to forestall costly investments in desalination and treatment of urban runoff, which respectively cost from four to 14 times more than transfers. They have given short shrift to outdoor water conservation, too, compared to other areas along the river. Moreover, because these other measures take many years to finance and put in place, they are leaving the region increasingly vulnerable to drought. Just as serious, the transfers are inflicting environmental and economic destruction along the river that is invisible in the city halls of metropolitan Southern California, but increasingly painful to Gonzalez and untold others. Farmers are taking land out of production to accommodate the transfers, leaving farm workers jobless.

In the Imperial Valley, the transfers are accompanied by “water efficiency” measures, such as lining canals from which seepage supplies water for farming communities and a series of wetlands just south in Mexico. A new dam to hold more water in the U.S. when it rains in the desert will further cut Mexico’s water supply. When the projects are finished, Mexico will lose water around which it has historically organized its economy and society, dashing the economic hopes and spirit of more than a million people in the Mexicali Valley and fueling a bitter lawsuit and international tensions.

“It’s sort of a xenophobia,” says Malissa Hathaway-McKeith at the law firm of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard, & Smith LLP, who is one of the lead attorneys pressing the case on behalf of a Mexicali business group against the United States government, which is behind the lining of the canal. “There’s no way we would do this to Canada.”

All along the river, the habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife is near collapse. In the fast-flowing streams President Eisenhower once fished high in the Rockies of Grand County, Colorado, water flows are too low and warm to support large trout populations. Delicate wetlands in the desert and the Salton Sea will soon be pushed over the edge by massive transfers of water to Southern California. They will cause billions of dollars of unfunded state taxpayer liabilities for mitigation as they dry out the inland sea and spew a cloud of salty, pesticide-tainted dust in the air over the Imperial and Coachella valleys.

Moved by stories of profligacy, undue land-developer influence, farmland going fallow, and greed and gross injustice creating economic desperation, I decided to follow the pipeline to the source that supplies the interconnected plumbing of Los Angeles and Southern California with much of its water. I wanted to see what water managers had bragged to me was the “most regulated river in the world.” So I began a series of journeys and inquiries to various points along the great Colorado River — from the river’s delta to Colorado — under a cloudless sky. My first stop was Boulder City, Nevada, next to Hoover Dam.

As I roll north on U.S. Highway 95 from the drab casino town of Laughlin, Nevada, the rising sun reveals a landscape carved by the ancient Colorado River. Joshua trees sprout from the desert where the river cuts its way through the land, slicing canyons in some places and leaving flat plains in others as it meanders south toward the sea.

At the beginning of the 20th century, farmers devastated by floods and cities seeking water called on the federal government to control the river, which could rage like a giant in wet years and run low when it was dry. They wanted help evening out their water supplies to make life more predictable.

So Congress approved a series of projects after 1922, when Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover negotiated a division of the Colorado’s water — known as the law of the river. The projects included a Metropolitan Water District aqueduct from the Colorado River into the Los Angeles area, and a series of dams along the lower river, called the Boulder Canyon project, beginning with Hoover Dam. The projects spawned an extensive system of irrigation canals in the farmlands to the south and set the stage for the dramatic growth of cities in the American Southwest.

Based on what was thought to be an average water flow of 17 million acre-feet a year, the 1922 law of the river allotted 7.5 million acre-feet of the Colorado’s water to the lower-basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, and an equal amount to the upper-basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. In 1944, the U.S. entered a treaty with Mexico granting 1.5 million acre-feet a year to its southern neighbor. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1964 split the lower-state share of 7.5 million acre-feet a year, entitling California to 4.4 million acre-feet; Arizona, 2.8 million acre-feet; and Nevada, 300,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot supplies about two Southern California households for a year.

Through the ensuing decades, the people of the Southwest built their cities and operated their farms on the basis of these water shares. Though they continually squabbled, the river always supplied enough water to meet these basic quotas because of the large reservoirs the federal government built, including Lake Mead, formed by the completion of Hoover Dam in 1935, and upstream Lake Powell, created by the Glen Canyon Dam, finished in 1963.

In retrospect, however, the expectation that the river would provide 17 million acre-feet of water a year turned out to be based on what were exceptionally wet years at the time the law of the river was negotiated, according to Michael Cohen, a senior research associate with the Pacific Institute.

Historical data on the river’s flow over the last 100 years show that an average of only 15 million acre-feet a year of water flows down the river. Based on studies of tree rings that go back hundreds of years, the long-term average flow is closer to 13.5 million acre-feet, according to Melinda Kassen, an attorney with the Colorado office of Trout Unlimited.

Yet for decades, no crises developed, because water was stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead during wet years and released slowly to meet downstream needs during dry years. Droughts always ended, and the reservoirs always refilled, at least until the drought that began in 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the dams along the river.

That lack of flow during the drought quickly turned disagreements over how to divide surplus water into hardball negotiations over how to manage shortages, which brought me to Boulder City to visit the federal Bureau of Reclamation, a part of the Interior Department.

The bureau’s offices sit high on a hill overlooking the town the federal government built after Hoover Dam laborers revolted against some of the harshest working conditions documented in U.S. history. They faced temperatures as high as 119 degrees in 1931 while living in tents with their families, who had to haul drinking water from the river by hand. Mothers wrapped their babies in wet sheets to prevent them from being overcome by the heat in the unrelenting desert sun.

They worked — some 5,500 men in all — for scrip redeemable only at the company store of the construction firm managing the project for the U.S. government until Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933. They first blasted tunnels to divert the river around the construction area for the dam and then spent years building the dam itself, pouring sections of concrete 660 feet wide at the base and tapering off as the structure rose 726 feet up the cavernous walls of Boulder Canyon. Workers built a railroad line to bring needed supplies to the site and an on-site steel plant to roll the pipe needed to make the dam and its power generators work.

The project took less than five years, killing 112 workers in the harsh drive to complete it. When it finally was finished, FDR journeyed to the distant desert in 1935 to dedicate the dam — with its elaborate Art Deco–style flooring and doors throughout its interior — before a statue of winged angels on the Nevada side.

The landscaping of the Bureau of Reclamation’s office building in Boulder City consists of natural desert vegetation and rocks. The Mediterranean-style structure, with light-colored stucco walls and a red-tiled roof, is impeccably maintained in this town, today a tourist gateway for 10 million recreational users of Lake Mead each year.

Bob Walsh, the bureau’s spokesperson, drives me out to Hoover Dam, a monument of engineering ingenuity and, as he explains, the cornerstone of a network of projects that have made the Colorado “the most regulated river in the world.” Walsh, a tall, friendly gray-haired man who has spent his career with the bureau, points out the white “bathtub ring” below the dark walls of the canyon as we approach the lake. The ring reveals the drop in the water level since the drought began in 2000, leaving the docks of recreational marinas on dry land and exposing the ruins of an old Mormon farming town that was inundated when the reservoir was filled.

Since 2000, almost half the water has been drained out of Lake Mead to supply the lower states and Mexico. Upstream, Lake Powell is one-third full. Bureau scientists and engineers project that even a return to normal precipitation in the sprawling river basin will never refill Lake Mead, but only stabilize it at a level 40 feet lower than today. They project, too, that it will take decades of normal precipitation for Lake Powell to refill. Only record wet weather will fill the reservoirs sooner, because unlike in the past, when not all of the river’s water was needed by people, today more is needed than flows even during a normal year.

Unless the Southwest can successfully manage its growth-driven water shortage, the bureau’s projections foretell of a day in my lifetime when Hoover Dam — in less than 100 years after it was built — could become but an idle curiosity, a ruin like the ancient pyramids of Egypt.

After touring the mighty dam, with its humming generators and rumbling water pipes deep within solid concrete walls, Walsh and I return to the bureau’s office on the hill to meet Bob Johnson, the lower Colorado regional director.

“We’ve had a record drought,” begins Johnson, gray-haired with a well-trimmed mustache and a deep desert tan, while sitting on the comfortable leather sofa in his office below a Department of Interior emblem proudly mounted on the wall. “In the 100-year record [of precipitation], we’ve had the five worst consecutive years of drought.”

Even though the winter of 2004-05 was a good precipitation year, he says, water officials along the river remain nervous because “more water is getting used; there’s no question about it.”

Until 1995, he explains, the lower-basin states did not use all the water they were entitled to, but when the Central Arizona Project came fully online to ship water to booming Phoenix and Tucson, pressure grew to end deliveries of water to California to which Arizona was entitled but could not use. The states then agreed with the bureau in 2000 that California would phase out the use of that water under a “soft landing,” Johnson says, and use no more than its allotted 4.4 million acre-feet. “Then the drought hit.”

Suddenly there was a flurry of fears that the Colorado might be entering a long-term dry spell, of a severity not seen since the “epic drought,” which lasted through much of the 1500s, as documented by tree-ring records. So the bureau, he explains, is preparing shortage guidelines. They will govern how the federal government stores and releases water in the reservoirs along the river during dry conditions beginning by late 2007.

Under the law of the river, when the bureau cannot deliver 7.5 million acre-feet to the lower-basin states, those states have the right to put a call on the upper-basin states to release enough water to make up the difference, a demand that has never been made. Such a call would trigger water shortages in Denver by cutting the amount of water piped over the Rockies and leave ranchers and farmers on the western slopes of the Continental Divide high and dry.

If water was unavailable upstream, Johnson explains, Arizona would be the big loser along the lower Colorado, then Nevada. However, faced with the growing prospect of a real shortage, the states agreed that if Lake Mead gets too low, they would talk about novel approaches to using the river’s remaining water.

“Shortage,” says Johnson, “causes the states to think differently about how the river should be managed.”

I leave Boulder City on U.S. Highway 95 north, driving over the peaked purple mountains silhouetted by the setting sun and on into the valley of Las Vegas. Before me lie the sprawling lights of a city that has grown by epic proportions since I last visited in the late 1990s. I wanted to see how this fast-growing desert metropolis was dealing with water limits.

The population in Clark County has grown from 1 million in 1995 to 1.8 million today, almost doubling in 10 years, and is expected to hit 2.6 million by 2015. The buildings here look similar to suburban developments in Santa Clarita or Rancho Cucamonga, but the landscaping is decidedly different. There are fewer lawns and more native vegetation.

“If the only time you walk on the lawn is when you mow it, it’s time to do something else,” says J.C. Davis, spokesperson for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the main water supplier for the Las Vegas region. In the face of a persistent drought in Las Vegas, the agency has paid residents up to a dollar a square foot to rip out their lawns in a drastic effort to conserve water. Since the “cash for grass” program began in 1999, Las Vegas–area residents have torn out 68 million square feet of lawn, Davis says, cumulatively saving more than 8 billion gallons of water. Local governments have banned planting lawns in front yards and have limited turf covering to 50 percent of the back yard of each new home.

Despite these efforts, Las Vegas remains under a drought alert and places restrictions on sprinklers, car washing and other uses of water. Violators face monetary penalties.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has a hefty water-conservation budget compared to Southern California water agencies. It spends $7.89 per person in its service area on conservation programs, compared to $3.33 at the LADWP, $2.19 at the Metropolitan Water District and just 56 cents at the San Diego County Water Authority.

Even then, fearful of its water future, the authority is constructing a water-intake plant on Lake Mead, its only large source of water, 200 feet below the level of its current facility. Under an agreement reached by the states early in February in response to the Bureau of Reclamation’s coming shortage guidelines, the authority has agreed to, in essence, trade water with California. It would generate water for California by paying to build a dam at the lower end of the river. The dam would prevent suddenly unneeded irrigation deliveries — prompted, for instance, by unexpected rain — from flowing to Mexico so California could use the water. In exchange, Las Vegas would take more water from Lake Mead.

As I drive into the Los Angeles area from the Cajon Pass at night, the view looks distinctly different from what I saw during my earlier descent into Las Vegas. Instead of lights highly visible from the elevated freeway, here they are obscured by a canopy of trees along the thin greenbelt of urban sprawl that is Southern California.

I soon return to the river, this time down California State Highway 86, along the shimmering Salton Sea, at sunrise. The modern incarnation of this salty inland lake was made when the Colorado River breached its levee in 1905. Since then, farm irrigation-water runoff from the seemingly endless agricultural acreage of the Imperial Valley has fed the sea.

I am driving to the headquarters of the Imperial Irrigation District [IID], which helped propel the construction of Hoover Dam and other dams along the lower Colorado to bring a predictable supply of water to farmers in the Imperial Valley after the devastating flood. From a high-technology control room, the district operates by remote control a series of gates on its canals, which deliver more than 3 million acre-feet of river water to vegetable farms across the sandy valley, much of which lies below sea level. The IID delivers water to farms covering 479,000 acres through 1,700 miles of canals that branch off the 82-mile-long All-American Canal. This long canal takes water out of the river just north of Mexico and runs west, paralleling the international border. The farms bring a billion dollars a year into the valley.

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.

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.

It’s the same way in Los Angeles, where large developments, such as Playa Vista, are increasing the need for water.

To help ensure that water is truly available before city councils cozy with developers approve projects, state Senator Sheila Kuehl succeeded in writing a new law in 2001. Known as the “show-me-the-water bill,” it requires cities to develop a water-supply verification report before approving large development projects.

“It’s been good at raising the consciousness that water is just as important as schools, police and roads,” Kuehl told me, when it comes to development. One key observer said the law has produced “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Playa Vista is typical of the developments fueling transfers of water from farms, and soon to parch the throats and kill the crops of Mexicans.

Meeting in its dimly lit chamber on September 22, 2004, the Los Angeles City Council approved “phase two” of the development, which will bring 2,600 new homes and hundreds of thousands of square feet of stores and offices to the Westside of town.

The council had heard the concerns of environmentalists and local residents leading up to that day. Many also had collected years of dependable campaign contributions from the developer Playa Vista Capital. As controversy raged about its project, the company — headed by Steve Soboroff, former adviser to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan — gave $30,500 to various members of the Los Angeles City Council over five years, including many who voted to approve the project.

However, needing to both face the voters and raise the money to run campaigns, the City Council members came that day with a compromise in hand, requiring the company to restore a portion of the Ballona Wetlands and make changes to manage traffic along Lincoln Boulevard.

Yet, with the Colorado River in its fifth year of drought and the city facing environmental requirements to leave more water in the dusty Owens Valley, east of the towering Sierra Nevadas, no environmentalist or council member in the high-ceilinged room uttered a word about Playa Vista’s water demand.

Instead, the council overwhelmingly approved the project on the basis of an environmental-impact statement finding that it would cause “no significant” impacts when it came to water supply. A previous Los Angeles Department of Water and Power analysis showed there would be adequate water available for the project, which alone was projected to increase total demand for water by 1 percent in a city where 820,000 more people were expected to live by 2010.

The water increase was seen as “minuscule,” recalled Steve Sugerman, a spokesperson for Playa Vista, who, as part of a plea agreement, is helping federal investigators prosecute former staff members of the public-relations firm Fleishman Hillard for allegedly double-billing the city under a contract with LADWP.

Yet Playa Vista may be what an observer who prefers to remain anonymous referred to as the good part of the story produced by Kuehl’s law. The documentation of the project’s needs for water was thorough. Many conservation measures were included in the project, including the use of recycled water. To get a look at the bad, I drove to the city of San Jacinto, at the base of towering mountains at the very eastern edge of greater Los Angeles in Riverside County.

As I approach San Jacinto, coming down off a winding highway through brown and barren hills, the subdivisions become apparent and signs direct people to various tracts.

I go to the busy Planning Department counter at San Jacinto City Hall in the rapidly changing community’s downtown. I am here to review the documents approved by the city Planning Commission and the City Council giving permission to developers to build the new housing.

Typical is the Tamarisk housing project, being built by D.R. Horton America’s Builder. The company — which did not return my calls — will build 257 single-family homes on 75 vacant acres. Under conditions set by the city, every front yard must be covered with turf, which is cheaper to roll out than to plant native vegetation. The extensive documents for the project say little about water supply, except for the following boilerplate statement that I find in paperwork for other subdivisions approved the very same night, October 14, 2004, that Tamarisk got the nod. It reads: “The project will contribute to groundwater depletion in the area; however, the project is consistent with the future growth envisioned by the adopted general plan.”

I ask San Jacinto City Councilman Jim Ayres about the use of water by the new developments, and he says the city will meet its supply needs by recharging its aquifer with water being imported by the Eastern Municipal Water District. The city is concerned about its water supply, he says, but he points out that the region needs more housing, as evidenced by the people who camp out the night before homes go up for sale in new subdivisions, where 2,000-square-foot-plus homes start at around $300,000.

The city, Ayres says, saw 1,500 homes go up last year, will see 1,900 built this year, and has another 5,000 to 6,000 homes “in the pipeline” of the approval process.

Asked whether the support of D.R. Horton and other builders for his campaign to become the Republican candidate for the 65th Assembly District has influenced his stance on development, Ayres simply replies: “It takes three votes to make anything happen.”

He adds that he and other council members “have stood up to the developers” by requiring them to pay fees to expand the city’s fire and police departments.

The fast-growing area east of the city of Riverside has developed groundwater problems because of intensive use, including that in San Jacinto, confirms Peter Odencrans, spokesperson for the Eastern Municipal Water District, which supplies a half-million people, a number expected to double. To combat falling water levels and degrading aquifers, the district is purchasing water from the Metropolitan Water District to refill depleted underground aquifers. The water comes from both Northern California and the Colorado River. Only Northern California water will be used to refill the aquifer under San Jacinto. The district also has been investing in facilities expensive to build and operate that remove salt from groundwater that has gone brackish due to overuse.

Even so, he notes, the district has been appealing for voluntary conservation to prevent pressure drops from occurring on the hottest days of summer, when water demand peaks. “We’ll probably ask for conservation this summer,” he says.

High in Grand County, Colorado, the river begins on the western slopes of Rocky Mountain National Park. In spring, the water melts off the snow-covered mountains, producing a sheet of water that flowed underfoot when I hiked there above the tree line.

Yet even here at the source, the river and its high mountain tributaries have long been dammed to supply water to the fast-growing Front Range cities that lie along the end of the nation’s high plains and at the eastern base of the Rockies.

Looking out from his office in the small town of Fraser, Colorado, Kirk Klancke sees the snow piled high. He manages the Winter Park West Water and Sanitation District, which services a town that swells in population when skiers come in the winter. Despite the snow, he is doubtful that the drought has ended. “Denver is dry as a bone,” he says.

Klancke, however, is most familiar with the Fraser River, which flows into the Colorado. He not only manages the town’s water along its banks, but is himself a recreational trout fisherman and has seen the changes in the river through his lifetime.

He thinks that the whole Colorado River system has become over-allocated in a relatively short time. Sixty percent of the water in the Fraser River, he says, is now piped to the Front Range cities. Across the western slopes of the Rockies, ranchers, farmers, small-town residents and local water managers are fighting to prevent further outflows over the mountains.

Recalling a time when President Eisenhower fished for trout in the streams and rivers of Grand County, Klancke says that all the water that fell in the Fraser River basin moved downstream to the mighty Colorado.

“Eisenhower fished in 100 percent flows,” he says. “At 60 percent [piped over the mountains], we can barely keep trout alive." Not enough water flows to scour deposits of silt off the river bottom, smothering the freshwater invertebrates that trout feed on. In addition, the lower flows have resulted in warmer water, which leaves trout struggling to survive.

With the Denver region expected to grow by 2 million people over the next 15 years, according to Klancke, it will be necessary for cities there to take drastic steps to conserve water, including changes in landscaping and outdoor water use. “Denver uses so much water to water Kentucky bluegrass,” he says. “We will be in a drought year every year because of the population increase.”

Along the Gunnison River, which flows into the Colorado at Grand Junction, farmers and ranchers live in increasing fear of a call on the river by lower-basin states should drought persist.

A call likely would require ranchers to thin herds and farmers to cut down orchards, says Steven Glazier, who directs the High Country Citizens Alliance. Recovery, he says, would take years because new cattle would have to be bought and raised and new fruit trees planted.

Even without a call, he notes, the state of Colorado is projecting that demand for water will outstrip supply statewide by 20 percent within 20 years. “Colorado has a similar dynamic to California,” says Glazier.

The river begins in Colorado, but ends in Mexico, and here is where the increasing overuse of water is most apparent. To learn how the lack of fresh water is affecting people in the Mexicali Valley and on the river delta, I travel to Yuma to meet Francisco Zamora, who has a doctorate in resource management and works for the Sonoran Institute in Tucson. The Mexico City native has worked on issues related to the river delta since 1998 and has been trying to obtain increased freshwater flows across the delta to promote wetlands and native-vegetation restoration projects that would help wildlife flourish and could boost the tourism economy for the Mexican people.

I follow Zamora west along Interstate 8 through the low desert, where tourists race all-terrain vehicles up and down the sand dunes. Zamora and his colleagues are trying to promote a new brand of “geo-tourism” in which people experience nature in a gentler way than what we see from the freeway. We enter Mexicali, where there is little vegetation.

In the morning, we drive 50 miles south to the area where Zamora is working with colleagues in Mexico to improve habitat along the Hardy River, which flows into the Colorado. The water in the Hardy consists of irrigation-water drainage off farms in the Mexicali Valley, water that comes originally from the Colorado River to the north.

Along the river, we visit Campo Mosqueda, which farmer Jesus Mosqueda Gonzalez founded in 1953. It is a well-maintained camp with inviting-looking palapas that provide shade and a traditional-style central building made out of rustic brick that has a restaurant, bathrooms, a lounge and a patio. Both Mexicans and Americans come to the camp from spring through summer to enjoy boating, fishing and swimming, Gonzalez says.

However, lack of water turned into a problem, so residents along the Hardy built a dam by hand to retain water along their stretch of the river.

Gonzalez, a gray-haired man who now runs the camp with his sons, has seen the fish population decline in the Hardy and across the whole Colorado River Delta, and he blames the water allocations developed under the law of the river. “The delta is another user of water,” he says. “Deltas produce all the fish in the world. There should be water for the delta. But nobody thought that far ahead.”

Lack of fresh water flowing into the river delta has eliminated $2.4 billion a year in “ecological services,” according to Karl Flessa, a professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona. In what Flessa calls “pre-dambrian times,” shrimp, corvina and other species were supported by the brackish water created on the delta when abundant fresh water from the river mixed with the salty water of the ocean.

However, when the U.S. government filled Lake Powell in the 1960s, those fish declined along with the declining flow of fresh water. The lack of flow today makes it a struggle for the corvina to spawn in the increasingly salty waters of the delta, says Kristen Rowell, an aquatic biologist at the University of Washington who has studied fish habitat there.

We go up the river to El Mayor, a town of 200 families, mostly Cocopah Indians, and meet Andres Lopez Gonzalez, who is trying to eke out a living fishing the decimated corvina in this water-short land.

A plastic jug of drinking water sits outside the front door of his house in this dusty town where children play on unpaved streets. He rides down to the river with us to visit Don Onesimo, a Cocopah elder, and Juan Butron, an ejidofarmer who has traveled across the delta to join the group to work on a community river-restoration project.

Onesimo, 72, explains that the Cocopahs’ traditional way of life was to follow the river, eating fish, hunting, and gathering the natural vegetation found along its course. In more recent times, they have farmed and fished along the river, but it has been difficult due to the lack of fresh water and the infiltration of seawater far inland, which not only has killed off fish but has poisoned drinking-water wells, he says. He recalls that during his youth, in the 1940s, geese “clouded” the sky and brought Americans to hunt.

He rarely sees geese of late because the wetlands across the delta have dried up. “Even the desert vegetation is practically dead,” he says, pointing to the barren hills that rise to the west above El Mayor.

Butron fears that the U.S. will soon cut the flow of water from an agricultural drainage canal that supports one of the largest remaining wetlands on the delta, known as La Cienega de Santa Clara. It lies near his farming-collective community of Ejido John D. Johnson.

The U.S. is interested in treating the water in a largely idle desalination plant in Yuma and putting it into the river so it can count the water toward Mexico’s allotment of Colorado water. Right now, the water, which drains along a canal to the east of the river’s main course, does not count toward that allotment.

If the U.S. treats the salty irrigation runoff from Arizona, it will cut the water that flows to Mexico down the canal, killing the wetland.

Butron has been organizing people on both sides of the border to try to preserve the wetland. For his efforts, he won the $20,000 Michael S. Currier environmental-service award in 2005, which the New Mexico Community Foundation and North American Institute presented to him in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last December.

I drive with Zamora across the delta through Mexican farm towns to the main course of the Colorado River. We reach the bank of the river and drive across the levee to find the water. The mighty Colorado runs low here. We drive farther along the levee and see farms irrigated with river water. Some have patches of white salt on the surface of the soil. Vegetation along the river has been burned extensively in a fire of unknown origin. Salt cedar, an invasive bushy plant, dominates that bank of the river. There are few native cottonwood or willow trees.

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.