L.A. Water Agency's Desert Land Purchase Stirs Farmers' Fears
Landsat and Google Maps image shows the Palo Verde Irrigation District near Blythe, California. The Metropolitan Water District recently increased its property holdings in the district, a move that secures a bigger share of water rights in the area. (Google )
BLYTHE, Riverside County -- The Metropolitan Water District, the Los Angeles-based agency that provides drinking water to about half of the state's residents, has become the largest landowner in a desert farm district along the Colorado River -- and in the process has tapped into a deep well of distrust.
Farmers in the Palo Verde Valley are recalling how L.A.'s modern founders built an aqueduct a century ago to bring water hundreds of miles from the once bountiful, now barren Owens Valley.
"Are we going to dry up our rural, agricultural communities just to keep Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego growing? I think it would be a sad state of affairs," said Bart Fisher, a melon and broccoli farmer who is board president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District.
Metropolitan tried to calm nerves by sending its chairman in September to a public forum in Blythe, 225 miles east of its Los Angeles headquarters. It pledged to honor a 2004 agreement that caps the amount of land it pays farmers to idle at 28 percent of the valley.
That agreement, which expires in 2040, is hailed as a model for farms and cities to cooperate. Metropolitan pays farmers about as much as they would profit to harvest -- $771 an acre this year -- to bring Colorado River water on its 242-mile aqueduct to 19 million people in the coastal megalopolis it serves.
Palo Verde enjoys California's highest rights to the river, making the district immune to drought.
The dynamic changed when Metropolitan paid $256 million in July to nearly double its Palo Verde holdings to 29,000 acres, or about 30 percent of the valley. The agency denied its purchase from Verbena LLC, a company that bought the land several years earlier from the Mormon Church, was part of a larger plan.
"It's made the farmers out there nervous that we are the largest owner, but there was a strategic opportunity that came up," Metropolitan's general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger, said.
Metropolitan stirred similar angst this month in Northern California when its board moved ahead with a plan to buy more than 20,000 acres on five islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Its staff said the land could provide water storage, access to water rights and wildlife habitat. Not least of the possible benefits, the MWD says, owning the islands could ease construction of two massive tunnels to ship water south from the Delta.
Blythe, a riverside town of about 13,000 in the Mojave Desert that boasts two state prisons, is an oasis of gas stations, motels and fast-food restaurants on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Thomas Blythe staked claim to the river in 1877, beating Southern California cities under a Gold Rush-era doctrine called "first in time, first in right."
Los Angeles and its suburbs founded Metropolitan in 1928 to build the remarkably durable Colorado River Aqueduct. Parker Dam and the reservoir it created in Lake Havasu empty into a gray Art Deco-style building with nine pumps that quietly pipe water 300 feet up a steep slope. Teal metal cases that cover the pumps vibrate so little that a nickel placed on top stands on its side.
The water goes uphill through four more pump stations and through tunnels, canals and pipelines before reaching Southern California's coastal plain two days later.
The Colorado's huge man-made reservoirs have made the river an unheralded savior in California's four-year drought. Last year, the river supplied two-thirds of the 1.7 billion gallons of drinking water that Metropolitan delivers daily, up from a third three years earlier.
The river sustains 40 million people and farms 5.5 million acres, but white "bathtub rings" lining walls of the nation's largest reservoir in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, are evidence of shrinking supplies. California took more than it was entitled to until Sun Belt cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas clamored for their share and forced the nation's most populous state to go on a diet in 2003.
"It's really the only supply of water to this otherwise bone-dry region," said Bill Hasencamp, Metropolitan's manager of Colorado River resources.
Metropolitan has diverted up to 118,000 acre-feet of water a year from Palo Verde since 2005, enough for about 250,000 households. It paid $3,170 an acre to farmers who committed for 35 years, plus an annual fee for fallowed land. It idles 7 percent to 28 percent of the valley each year, depending on its needs.
Jack Seiler, a grower who volunteered 900 acres, calls the agreement a "poster child" for farms and cities to cooperate. But he says Metropolitan's July purchase of nearly 13,000 acres unsettled him. It gave Metropolitan the largest voting bloc on Palo Verde's water board.
Metropolitan says it won't have to pay someone else to idle the land it now owns and will lease it to farmers, cutting its net cost to about $50 million. It voted for incumbents in a September election to Palo Verde's seven-member board, which includes Seiler.
"I obviously don't know why they bought all this land," Seiler said. "It puts us a little bit at odds."