Water Flows Freely in Drought-Resistant Farm Towns of Southern California -- For Now

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Recently irrigated field in the Imperial Valley town of El Centro. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

In a wide field along a narrow two-lane road in the town of El Centro, the grass is tall and rusty brown.

It's not a water-starved golf course or parched public park. It’s a lush wheat field, in tiptop health, today getting harvested by a guy riding one of those big green combines.

A recently harvested field in Imperial County. Wheat, alfalfa and other grasses used to feed cattle are among the region’s top crops.
A recently harvested field in Imperial County. Wheat, alfalfa and other grasses used to feed cattle are among the region’s top crops. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

Wheat and alfalfa are among Imperial Valley’s top crops.

“We grow 365 days out of the year,” explains farmer Al Kalin.

He grows alfalfa, onions, carrots and sugar beets at his 1,800-acre spread on the edge of the Salton Sea.

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“The ground is always in production here because we have all the sunlight, we have a steady supply of water," he says.

Kalin’s farm is about 30 minutes from where the enormous All-American Canal slices across the Mexico border from the Colorado River and gushes into the Imperial Valley, the sole lifeline of the region’s multibillion-dollar ag industry.

NASA image showing about 10 miles of the All-American Canal as it wends its way from Arizona into Southern California’s Imperial Valley.
NASA image showing about 10 miles of the All-American Canal as it wends its way from Arizona into Southern California’s Imperial Valley. (NASA, International Space Station / WIKIPEDIA)

Farmers here don’t have to worry about wells running dry (there are none) or dwindling snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada.

“We’re worried about snowpack in the Rockies because that’s where our water comes from, not from the Sierras,” says Kalin.

Thanks to so-called first-in-time federal agreements established nearly 100 years ago, Imperial County drinks up the lion’s share of Colorado River water that flows into Southern California, buffering it from much of the drought anxiety gripping the rest of the state.

Gov. Jerry Brown called such water deals “archaic” in an interview with ABC News last month.

“Some people have a right to more water than others," Brown said. "That’s historic. That’s built into the legal framework of California. If things continue at this level, that’s probably going to be examined.”

Agricultural sprinklers dousing a field in the Imperial Valley town of El Centro with Colorado River water. Farmers here are under no drought-related restrictions.
Agricultural sprinklers dousing a field in the Imperial Valley town of El Centro with Colorado River water. Farmers here are under no drought-related restrictions. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

The Colorado River is in its 14th year of drought, though officials have yet to cut allocations to California and other states.

Richard Atwater of the nonprofit Southern California Water Committee says that as drought persists across the West, first-in-time water agreements will be harder to justify.

“Farming in Imperial Valley and Coachella,” wonders Atwater. “What’s the rationale for them to get first rights on the Colorado River when Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and 19 million people in Southern California all depend on Colorado River water, too?"

“Oh, I have a lot to say about that,” says Imperial Valley Farm Bureau Executive Director Linsey Dale.

“By changing and reforming the water rights system, it’s not going to make California any wetter,” Dale says. “It’s just going to send water from here to another place. Do we want water for green lawns or do we want food? We all have to sacrifice in this time, and farmers in Imperial County have been sacrificing.”

The agreement that keeps Imperial County flush with water has been tinkered with before.

Twelve years ago, San Diego County and the Coachella Valley were granted larger allocations of Imperial Valley’s share of Colorado River water. Those allocations will increase year by year, leaving Imperial Valley farmers with less.

Atwater says growers, by far the biggest water consumers in the state, must be spurred to do more.

Recently irrigated field in the Imperial Valley town of El Centro.
Recently irrigated field in the Imperial Valley town of El Centro. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

“We need to motivate every farmer to either fallow or invest in more efficiency and get rewarded for reducing their water use and freeing up that conserved water, so somebody else can then take advantage of it,” says Atwater.

Farmers in the Imperial Valley are offered financial incentives to take land out of production -- roughly 45,000 acres in recent years, Dale says. It has saved water -- but it has also cost jobs in a region with one of the highest poverty rates in the state.

“Lots of people have lost work through that, the farm service providers, the custom harvesters,” says Dale. “It’s quite a significant trickle-down effect.”

Imperial County’s fallowing program is set to expire in 2017. But farmers will then have to meet higher thresholds for on-farm conservation.

That carries its own costs, though, in a region where water continues to be cheaper and more plentiful than in other parts of the state.