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Alex Jack says he’s not charged enough for the water he uses at his Imperial Valley farm. Because the Colorado River water shared by him and his neighboring farmers who make up the vast agricultural economy in the middle of the desert is so cheap, he says, farmers have little incentive to conserve.
Jack, though, spends a lot of money to save water through a huge system of irrigation hoses that push water to the root of his Little Gem lettuce plants, drop by drop. The cost to run his 3,200-acre ranch is astronomical for the area, reaching upwards of $1 million a week during the busy season to power and pay for what functions like his own water district, circulating used water back to the top of his fields and storing excess in a private reservoir.
“Everything I do is to be a better farmer,” Jack, 64, said. “If I happen to conserve water in the process, that’s great. But they’re subsidizing the people that aren’t conserving water … It’s like politicians giving away free ice cream to everybody, then everyone is happy.”
The “they” Jack refers to is the Imperial Irrigation District, a public water and power utility that manages miles of canals delivering Colorado River water to farmers and residents of the valley.
Colorado River water was virtually free in the early 20th Century when pioneers dug the valley’s first canals that would later transform this desert landscape into a $2 billion agricultural industry. Imperial Valley farmers now pay about $20 an acre foot to transport Colorado River water to their fields, a price unchanged since 2011. An acre foot is enough water to fill an acre of land, one foot deep or how much an average California home uses both indoors and outdoors.
Farmers next door in San Diego County pay between $799 and $1,109 per acre foot. Even the Coachella Valley Water District, just north of Imperial Valley, charges farmers about $37 per acre foot, nearly twice what the Imperial Irrigation District charges its farmers.
Because water is so cheap, Imperial Irrigation District doesn’t make enough selling it to cover expenses on water revenues alone. Instead of charging farmers the full cost of water transportation to the valley, the district reinforces its budget by selling conserved water to San Diego, among a few other regions, at higher prices.
In the late 1990s, San Diego decided to diversify its water sources after a drought caused cutbacks from its only supplier, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District. San Diego made a deal to pay for water conservation on Imperial Valley farms in exchange for some of their Colorado River water. In the water policy world, that deal is known as the QSA or “quantification settlement agreement,” and it’s one of the largest transfers of water from agriculture to an urban area in U.S. history.
But IID doesn’t spend most of that money on conservation. It uses a large portion of those San Diego dollars to pay for employees that manage water deliveries and maintain canals and operate on good financial footing.
“Without the QSA, the growers would either have a very small water department and not the best service or they would have a rate increase by now,” said Tina Shields, water department manager at the Imperial Irrigation District.
Shields thinks increasing the water rate is a good idea but it puts the board elected to run the Imperial Irrigation District in a tough spot. The board is set to gain two new directors this year.
A member of that board, JB Hamby, who was elected in 2020 said he’s been floating the rate increase idea with farmers recently. The 26-year-old director acknowledged the issue has been mired by controversy in the past as farmers and the board worked through disagreements over water conservation largely sparked by the San Diego deal.
“We’re in a new era with a new set of (board members) and realities we’re experiencing,” Hamby said. “Let’s take a fresh look at what we’re doing and set rates according to what it actually takes to deliver the water here.”
The valley can’t ask San Diego for any more money. The price of the QSA is locked in until 2045.
Jack’s argument is simple: If farmers paid the true cost of water delivery, that could generate millions for farm conservation, and could free up more drought-stretched Colorado River water for others in the basin.
The true cost of water delivery varies depending on who you ask. Most agree, including director Hamby, the price hovers around $40 an acre foot – double what farmers pay now.
Jack is first to say his opinion is probably an unpopular one. But another key farming leader in the valley agrees.
Mark McBroom, 63, farms citrus and Medjool date groves on the valley’s northwestern corner flanked by sandy, arid federal land. He chairs the Agricultural Water Advisory Committee, a group of over a dozen water users appointed by elected Imperial Irrigation District board members. McBroom said he’s been pushing a higher water price for years.
“You have a lot of farmers on the fence because they don’t use the (conservation) program that much,” McBroom said. “And they enjoy the $20 price for farming their hay and their grass and things like this. They’re not a big proponent of this.”
One of those on-the-fence farmers is Trevor Tagg, 36, of West-Gro Farms, which grows dehydrated onions and forage crops, like alfalfa and Bermuda grass and sunflower.
“Everything is incredibly expensive right now in these forage commodities that I live and die by,” Tagg said. “Right now, the market for those crops is very high. But if they fall apart, and if we stick ourselves with more than double our water rate, we might solve the Lake Mead problem but you won’t see shit for forage commodities. I’m fearful of that.”
Shrinking Colorado River Resources Squeeze Farms, Cities
Lake Mead is the Colorado River’s largest reservoir located behind Hoover Dam just outside of Las Vegas. The water level there signals the health of the rest of the river, which powers a massive agricultural industry and provides drinking water for millions of people living in seven states and two countries.
The West is experiencing such severe climate change-driven drought, the water level at Lake Mead dropped lower than ever before this year. To refill the reservoir, the federal government is coaxing states to reduce water demand by fallowing farms and flipping lawns into desert landscape. If states can’t agree, and water levels keep dropping, the federal government can set mandatory cuts following “the law of the river.”
That law is really a set of agreements and contracts made over a hundred years ago when expansionists first settled the West. They dictate a pecking order as to who loses river water depending on availability at Lake Mead. Imperial Irrigation District is virtually last in line to be cut by force.
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are first in line and already face mandatory water cuts next year. California, under those century-old agreements, is in the clear for now. But political pressure from states that aren’t is mounting, so some of California’s biggest water users – including Imperial Irrigation District – tentatively agreed to voluntarily conserve 400,000-acre feet in 2023. California’s full share is 4.4 million-acre feet. Imperial Valley has a right to 3.1 million of that..
While that 400,000-acre feet savings seems a drop in the bucket, farmers in Imperial Valley, whose legal rights to water remain ironclad, will have to come up with over half of that. It ruffled feathers.
On Nov. 17, the Imperial County Farm Bureau sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal body that determines what happens along the Colorado River, restating their commitment to conserve an additional 250,000-acre feet. The bureau scolded the feds for failing to push other Colorado River basin states into a deeper state of mandatory drought conservation. That harsher scenario would force a canal serving Arizona cities like Phoenix to take an even larger hit and require other areas of California to take a cut for the first time.
Conserving more water in Imperial Valley “will however come at a great expense to our farmers, the IID and disadvantaged community whose main source of income comes from agriculture,” the letter reads.
The Bureau of Reclamation, in hopes of securing voluntary commitments to use less water, offered in August to pay farmers up to $400 per acre foot of water conserved. That’s not enough, the bureau wrote, to meaningfully impact the water levels at Lake Mead.
It is, however, more than Imperial Irrigation District pays them from San Diego dollars. Payments to add equipment like sprinklers, drip irrigation and other accouterments that help efficiently water crops average about $217 per acre foot of water saved. That reimbursement rate has dropped from $285 per acre foot in 2013 when the farm conservation program really kicked off.
Ranchers like Larry Cox, whose family farmed Imperial Valley since the 1950s, has long held Imperial Irrigation District’s payments weren’t enough to cover ever-skyrocketing labor and diesel costs. Cox said valley farmers mistrust their utility. He supports raising the price of water to reflect the cost of delivery but wants certainty that extra money would be spent on the land itself.
“Imperial Irrigation District needs to be held accountable for doing a good job of delivering that water,” Cox said.
Farmers Fear Fed’s Biggest Stick
A looming threat lingers over Imperial Valley that, if the drought worsens and states relying on the Colorado River can’t agree to save lots of water, the federal government might force farmers to fallow their ground, in other words, stop planting and, therefore, irrigating. That threat has a name: the 417 proceeding.
Farmers met the deal to give San Diego a portion of Imperial Valley’s water back in 2003 with fierce resistance at the start. So much so that the federal government leaned on the 417 proceeding, which served as a notice the government could cut how much water Imperial Valley farmers ordered that year from the Colorado River, if the valley didn’t come to terms with San Diego.
The 417 dictates water use should be both “reasonable and beneficial,” a broad definition in Western water law. It’s a box to check for all Colorado River water users each year, but during times of scarcity – like right now – water users are waiting to see whether the federal government might decide certain uses are unreasonable, like watering lawns or flooding crops with water, the traditional irrigation method in Imperial Valley.
“As water has become tighter and tighter the meaning of 417 is pretty clear,” Jack, the farmer, said. “You can’t just go out there and waste water. Using pump backs or drip irrigation puts you in that category of reasonable and beneficial, and therefore, no one should be able to take away your water.”
In other words, he views voluntary conservation as preemptive protection against the heavy hand of the federal government.
During a June meeting, fears of a 417 process resurfaced. Imperial Valley farmer Ronnie Leimgruber criticized the Imperial Irrigation District for poor management of the farming conservation program backed by San Diego dollars. Over the last two years, Leimgruber said, he spent $2.5 million on water conservation projects on his land but the utility still hasn’t reimbursed him.
“The only way we can improve our chances on a 417 is with water conservation projects on farms,” Leimgruber said. “The only way we can do that is if the district improves the way we do on-farm conservation. We need a way to insulate ourselves from the 417.”
Hamby said the utility’s had limited staff resources to focus on changes to the program made by previous leadership. He hopes the new board could use years’ worth of data from the program to make payments more predictable.
In the meantime, water agencies across the West are waiting to hear what the federal government might say about their water orders for 2024.
“It’s important we understand we’re being scrutinized and doing our part protecting our resources and maximizing beneficial use,” Hamby, the water district board director said.
Correction: An earlier version if this story misstated the amount of water Imperial Valley has a right to under the law of the river. It’s 3.1 million acre feet.