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Freeing up Colorado River water from California farms will take more than just money. Just ask the farmers

Farmer Alex Jack stands in an alfalfa field watered by a drip irrigation system on June 20, 2023. California's Imperial Valley has the single largest allocation of Colorado River water, and Jack says growers need funding to upgrade their systems and conserve water.
Alex Hager / KUNC
Farmer Alex Jack stands in an alfalfa field watered by a drip irrigation system on June 20, 2023. California's Imperial Valley has the single largest allocation of Colorado River water, and Jack says growers need funding to upgrade their systems and conserve water.

Under the broiling hot sun of California’s Imperial Valley, a canal cuts the land in two. On one side, gravelly beige sand is dotted with scrub and shimmering waves of heat blur the mountains in the distance. On the other, sprawling fields of crops blanket the valley floor in a mat of bright green squares.

Here, plentiful sun and high temperatures create a near year-round growing season. Farms sit atop the silty soils of an ancient river delta. And for at least the last hundred years, a steady supply of fresh water from the Colorado River has turned the valley from a baking desert into an agricultural oasis.

“It really is an emerald gem that we have,” said John Hawk, whose family has been growing crops in the Imperial Valley since the early 1900s. “With the water, we can do miracles.”

Hawk and other farmers are reluctant to further cut back on the amount of water they use to keep their fields green, despite pressure from policymakers looking to reduce strain on the Colorado River. Growers say they want to be part of a solution, but are asking for money to incentivize water cutbacks, and hint at other cultural and legal hurdles that stand in the way of reducing their water use.

The Imperial Valley produces $2.9 billion in crops and livestock each year. That’s because the valley’s Imperial Irrigation District (IID) holds the largest single allocation of Colorado River water – bigger than any other farming district or city between Wyoming and Mexico. But now, that water allocation is under increasing scrutiny from water managers looking to cut back on water use and correct a perilous gap between supply and demand on the Colorado River.

The valley’s farmers are bound together by IID. The body represents growers in negotiations about water rights and wields a tremendous amount of clout. California’s share of Colorado River water is larger than any other state, and about 70% of it is earmarked for IID.

The district has been referred to as a “gorilla” and an “elephant” and has leaned into its reputation as brash and eager to push back at critics.

Since 2000, the river’s water supply has been shrinking due to climate change, and policymakers have failed to make significant cutbacks to the region’s water use. Over the past two decades, water managers have drawn up a patchwork of short-term measures to prevent catastrophe – like the loss of hydropower production at the nation’s largest reservoirs – but have been caught in a standoff over how to substantially and permanently reduce demand.

IID recently signed up for some cutbacks as part of a three-state plan to reduce how much water California, Arizona and Nevada take from the river. But the broader task of balancing the river’s supply and demand will be nearly impossible without Imperial farmers on board with using even less.

Fertile ground

Farmer Jack Vessey started up his pickup truck and the air conditioner roared to life. It was unseasonably cool for late June, but temperatures had already reached the 90s before the end of breakfast time. Vessey cruised along dirt farm roads, gesturing out at neatly divided plots of salad greens as far as the eye can see.

“This was spring mix over here,” he said, pointing to a patch that’s resting between growing seasons. “This was iceberg lettuce over here. That was spinach and romaine back there.”

Vessey’s great grandfather started the business in 1923, and the family has been growing here since the 1940s.

Imperial Valley growers often court criticism for the amount of water they use, but are quick to assert just what they do with it – grow a sizable portion of America’s vegetables.

Estimates vary because Imperial’s greens are packaged and counted alongside veggies from other nearby regions, but around 90% of the nation’s leafy greens sold in the winter are grown with Colorado River water between a few valleys in California, Arizona and Mexico. Imperial contributes a large portion of that.

This region is hot and dry, even when huge swaths of the country are covered in snow and below-freezing temperatures.

“We're not growing hot Cheetos for your kids,” Vessey said. “We're growing medicine for your kids.”

Vessey and his peers are also churning out fields of alfalfa hay, a particularly thirsty crop fed to cattle. Vessey said alfalfa is an important piece of his growing portfolio, and can be planted when fields need a break between seasons of leafy greens better suited for human consumption.

Alfalfa growth in the Imperial Valley and elsewhere across the river basin has drawn widespread criticism. Cities under pressure to use Colorado River water more judiciously are quick to point out that about 80% of the river’s water is used for agriculture, and some critics point to alfalfa as a glaringly inefficient use within that sector.

The Colorado River basin as a whole ships an estimated $880 million of hay overseas each year, with most going to China, Japan and Saudi Arabia.

‘We need to be paid’

John Hawk, another farmer in the valley, stepped out of his own white pickup and pulled on a ballcap to keep the sun out of his eyes. Hawk, who also serves as a county supervisor, comes from a long line of local growers. “Four generations going on five,” he said, and noted that his dad helped build the All-American canal, which carries Colorado River water to Imperial’s fields.

Hawk watched as water slowly spread across one of his fields, drowning the dirt and gradually seeping into the mud. This method of flood irrigation, he explained, looks like a waste of water, but is needed to flush salts out of the ground between growing seasons. Across the road, that salty water splashed into a canal full of runoff, flowing away from the fields.

“Do we need to conserve? Absolutely,” Hawk said. “We need to conserve, but we need to be paid for the conservation.”

Hawk’s sentiment is a common one around these parts. Conservation takes a backseat to the bottom line. New technologies and methods exist that could help farmers like Hawk cut back on water use, but there’s little incentive to install them without money on the table.

“We could use drip or sprinklers,” Hawk said. “But you got to remember that the cost goes way up in a crop. And so how are we compensated for doing that?”

Hawk argued that even compensated cuts would be painful – threatening local jobs and risking an increase to the cost of vegetables and the cost of beef and dairy produced with the help of Imperial hay.

Imperial growers have another major sticking point, too – the Salton Sea. The Colorado used to intermittently fill the giant lake before it was dammed upstream and its flows significantly curtailed. Now, with the river confined to its channel, the sea is sustained with runoff from the farm fields of the Imperial Valley. As the valley’s farmers use less, the Salton Sea will continue to dry, reducing habitat for the flocks of migratory birds that stop there, and producing dust storms that increase risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases in the valley’s residents.

Potential solutions for the Salton Sea are varied and hotly debated, but the Imperial Valley’s water policymakers are wary of drying it any further, and likely to seek funding to tamp down the hazardous effects of putting even less water into it. A project to clean up and restore the Salton Sea was recently granted $250 million from the Inflation Reduction Act.

And the issue of giving up water goes even further beyond the balance sheet, and even the Salton Sea. Western water is governed by the longstanding legal structure of “prior appropriation.” In short, it means the first people to use water will be the last to face cutbacks in times of shortage. It’s a system that has proven stubbornly inflexible, even as the realities of a changing climate have forced policymakers to consider sweeping changes to how the Colorado River is shared.

It’s also a system that greatly benefits farmers in Imperial Valley. Their water rights are among the oldest, and thus the most legally untouchable. That has imbued the area’s farmers with a legal entitlement to that water and a sense of indignation. The law says their water should be the last to get cut, and Imperial farmers say the law should be followed to the letter now that it’s time to make those cuts.

Hawk sports a warm grandfatherly demeanor with a neat white mustache, but makes it clear that he means business when it comes to water rights.

“Don't crowd to the front of the line,” he said. “It doesn't work, and you'll get a fight out of me. I'll grab you by the neck and say, ‘Listen, pal, you pay your dues just like our forefathers did.’”

The way of the future

One farmer in Imperial Valley knows exactly what he would do if he was paid to conserve, and he’s already doing it.

Alex Jack sports the same outfit as many other Imperial growers who manage farms from behind a desk – a blue button-down tucked into jeans. But many of the similarities stop there. He has made no secret of his gripes about the valley’s agricultural status quo.

“If you go back and get your grandma's car that had a big V8 in it – not very good gas mileage, made out of steel, very heavy, clunky – nowadays you look at that car thinking, ‘Oh my god,’” Jack said. “Well, unfortunately, a lot of farmers are still driving their grandma's cars, so to speak, when it comes to irrigation.”

Jack, who grows veggies and alfalfa like many other farmers, said efficiency upgrades are a must. That’s why he’s experimenting with a handful of new technologies to get more out of his water allocation. That includes a permanent drip irrigation system, which he’s buried under 70 acres of an alfalfa field.

Jack waded into the field’s neat rows, the shin-deep stalks crackling under his boots.

“It's like farming with an eyedropper,” Jack said. “Just incredible preciseness for each plant. When you can micromanage your water, your crop production goes up tremendously.”

The tech doesn’t come cheap. Jack, for example, has had to install costly filtration systems to purify water before it's pumped into the system’s narrow tubes. If he was king for a day, Jack said he would direct money towards Imperial Valley and make farmers set up similar systems to conserve water. Some holdouts are just “hard headed,” but he cites two hurdles that explain widespread adoption of water-saving techniques is difficult under the area’s current conditions.

Many of the valley’s farms have been passed down through the same families for generations, but have been gradually divided as the holdings are split among siblings, halving or quartering land and finances with each generation. That, Jack said, has left many farm owners without the capital they’d need to fund water efficiency projects on their own land.

Another obstacle, he said, is the Imperial Irrigation District itself. The agency serves as a clearinghouse for federal money and other funds sent to the valley as part of regional water transfers.

Jack, whose father Neal served on the district’s board of directors in the 1970s and 80s, criticized IID for “putting out fires” with new money, instead of spending it on long-term investments in water conservation.

The district may soon see an influx of federal money. IID just signed on to a proposal for new water cutbacks, and would receive an unspecified total from the Inflation Reduction Act in exchange. The exact number has not yet been announced, but those funds would come out of a $4 billion chunk set aside specifically for Colorado River projects, and could amount to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, if the proposal moves forward.

Jack, in a cheeky metaphor, accused IID of keeping funds for its own programs when they should be more generously dispersed among farmers.

“Let's say there's four kids in your family and your parents are going away for the weekend,” he said. “Your older sister is in charge of a hundred dollar bill to make sure everyone's fed. Who gets the change at the end of the day? It's the older sister.” For its part, the district’s staff say Imperial Valley farmers should adopt new watering techniques like the ones deployed on Jack’s farm, but allocating money is easier said than done.

“You can't make everybody happy,” said Tina Shields, IID’s water department manager. “If you have ten farmers, you have ten different opinions on what the best program is, because they're going to advocate for what works for their business model. But the district has to look at it more programmatically and implement manageable programs and try to satisfy as many people as possible.”

What happens next?

Debates about Imperial Valley water are especially pertinent as the region’s water managers wring their hands ahead of a looming deadline. The current rules for the Colorado River are set to expire in 2026, and the states that use its water have stressed the need to come up with new ones before then.

While formal negotiations officially began in June, the river’s policy bigwigs have been hashing out ideas for years, and it hasn’t brought them much closer to a solution. They face a daunting task. Re-slicing the pie to bring down water demand in the face of climate change will undoubtedly end with painful cuts somewhere among the tens of millions of people which use Colorado River water – a group that includes a multibillion dollar agriculture economy and major cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver.

Recent proposals for water conservation garnered plenty of positive press, but water management experts were quick to point out that they amounted to little more than the latest band-aids in a struggling river basin that has been in emergency mode for the past few years.

An unusually wet winter lifted some weight off the shoulders of water managers, but that could be quickly reversed by a string of dry years.

“I don't know if we're going to make it to 2026,” said Michael Cohen, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute. “I'm not sure if the Lower Basin proposals will be enough. Everybody needs to step up and do something as well. So we have a little bit of time, but I don't think it's smooth sailing through 2026 by any stretch.”

Cohen has studied Colorado River policy for three decades and has written extensively about the Salton Sea.

He said any post-2026 rules for the river will need to include conservation from users in Imperial and beyond – including water users in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, which are often reticent to promise their own water cutbacks and say larger users, such as those in California, should do so first.

States and observers alike are optimistic that any cuts in any part of the Colorado River Basin will most likely be voluntary, as mandatory water restrictions levied by the federal government would probably end up in court, creating messy legal battles that states say they want to avoid.

Cohen – and Imperial Valley growers themselves – said the Imperial Irrigation District should get some credit for water conserved through the Quantification Settlement Agreement, a 2003 deal that shifted some water away from Imperial’s farms into San Diego and the Los Angeles area.

The 2003 agreement was a tense and messy process, but ultimately saw the Imperial Irrigation District make cutbacks of just under 500,000 acre-feet each year going forward. The district is entitled to 3.1 million acre-feet each year. Even two decades later, the wounds can still feel fresh in an area that may have to make painful cutbacks again soon.

“When your arm is twisted behind your back and you have a gun to your head,” said Tina Shields, IID’s water department manager, “You enter into these so-called voluntary agreements. It's all worked out for the best, but it's been a chore to get there.”

Cohen is skeptical that drip irrigation could serve as a silver bullet for agencies looking to squeeze some extra water out of the Imperial Valley, and expects farmers would bristle at programs that incentivize them to fallow their fields – pausing or permanently stopping growth in some areas.

The next frontier, he said, is shifting to different types of crops, exploring alternatives to alfalfa and other similar water-intensive grasses. That’s a process that could see some of the Colorado River’s biggest tensions play out in the grocery aisle.

“As people start saying, ‘Maybe we're going to eat a little less cheese on our pizza or reduce our beef consumption,’” Cohen said, “Then there's a price signal to some of the growers, and they may start shifting to other crops.”

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.