Across the sun-cooked flatlands of the Imperial Valley, water flows with uncanny abundance. The valley, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, is naturally a desert. Yet canals here are filled with water, lush alfalfa grows from sodden soil and rows of vegetables stretch for miles.
Within this grid of greenery, near the desert town of Brawley, Mark McBroom grows 6,000 acres of hay crops, like alfalfa, and fruit orchards, all irrigated by water imported from the Colorado River.
But now, as a record-breaking megadrought and endless withdrawals wring the Colorado River dry, growers in Imperial County east of San Diego will have to cut back on the water they import. The federal government has told seven states to come up with a plan by Jan. 31 to reduce their water supply by 30%, or 4 million acre feet.
The Imperial Valley is by far the largest user of water in the Colorado River’s lower basin — consuming more water than all of Arizona and Nevada combined in 2022 — so growers there will have to find ways to sacrifice the most.
McBroom says he already has installed expensive drip irrigation and other advanced technology to reduce the amount of water he applies to his alfalfa and other crops.
“I’m all squeezed out,” he said. “At this point, the only thing I can do to reduce water use is take out trees.”
With the water from the Colorado River, Imperial County has become the ninth largest agricultural producer in the state, reporting $2.3 billion in sales in 2021, led by cattle and lettuce.
By acreage, alfalfa and other forage grasses — water-intensive crops used to feed dairy cows and cattle — dominate, carpeting more than half of the farmland. Imperial also produces two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. during winter months.
But the water supply shortage may take a bite out of the region’s production. The California urban and farm districts that use Colorado River supplies have offered to cut 400,000 acre-feet, or 9%, of their annual use. Of that, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to a 250,000 acre-foot share, which puts farmers on the hook to reduce their consumption by about 10%.
One solution is to fallow farmland, which Imperial growers would prefer to avoid. Growers currently irrigate almost half a million acres there.
The Imperial Irrigation District, which handles water distribution among growers, declined to discuss in detail plans or options for conserving water. Spokesperson Robert Schettler said “our bottom line is to increase on-farm efficiency.” This means techniques like drip and sprinkler irrigation instead of flooding fields, or leveling fields to optimize drainage, although he couldn’t say how much water could be saved through these measures.
The growers aren’t thrilled by the prospect of giving up their inexpensive Colorado River water. McBroom, who chairs the Agricultural Water Advisory Committee, said unless the federal government awards them adequate compensation, this could amount to “a taking of property.”
Imperial’s farmers are protected by longstanding and increasingly controversial senior water rights. Even the largest cities in Southern California and Arizona have water rights junior to Imperial’s, which gives its farmers legal priority in times of scarcity.
But California’s” first-in-line-first-in-right” water rights system could soon be put to the test by unprecedented depletion of water supplies.
John Fleck, water policy expert at the University of New Mexico School of Law’s Utton Center, said diminishing Colorado River flows could force a restructuring of water rights.
“The notion of senior water rights is simply not workable anymore,” he said.
Nevertheless, Holly Doremus, a water rights expert and professor of environmental regulation at the Berkeley School Law, doubts Imperial’s water rights could actually disrupt the supplies of large cities if there are dire shortages.
“Water will find its way there from farms … if people can’t turn the water on in L.A.,” she said.
For this conflict of priorities, McBroom blames unsustainable urban growth and excessive withdrawals by junior water right holders, especially city water suppliers in Arizona and Southern California, which use about the same amount of water as Imperial’s farmers.
“That’s what has put the senior right holders (Imperial growers) in this predicament,” McBroom said.
But Fleck sees a different issue at play.
“It’s not cities taking their water, and it’s not the government,” he said. “It’s climate change.”
An Improbable Oasis
Around the turn of the 20th century, agricultural engineers built a system of gravity-fed canals and irrigation ditches that diverted a large portion of the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley. In an arid basin ringed by brown mountains and sand dunes, a multitude of crops flourished. In 1911, the Imperial Irrigation District was formed and soon became a valuable agricultural area. Today, the region vividly illustrates the transformative power of imported water.
Even extreme drought has had remarkably little visible effect on the Imperial Valley. The flows of the Colorado River have been dwindling for years, forcing discussion of water conservation throughout the basin. But because the Imperial Irrigation District staked its claim to the Colorado’s water in the very early 1900s, before the cities of the lower basin, its water deliveries have been all but guaranteed. That’s in sharp contrast to farmers in other parts of California, for whom drought has become an existential threat.
Imperial’s water is also dirt cheap. Whereas farmers elsewhere in the state buy water for hundreds of dollars or more per acre-foot, the base rate for Imperial’s farmers is $20 per acre-foot. (An acre-foot is enough to support two to three California households for a year.)
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently offered to pay farmers up to $400 per acre-foot of water they conserve. But McBroom – the only local farmer of a half dozen contacted by CalMatters who agreed to an interview – says it isn’t a good deal.
“That’s a nothin’-burger,” he said. “That’s insulting.”
That’s because each acre-foot that flows onto a field generates about $2,000 for the local economy, according to McBroom. In the Imperial Valley, “water is a revenue generator,” he said.
‘We’re Looking at Cuts, Not Transfers’
The idea of cutting back on water use is irritating to Imperial’s farmers in part because they’ve already done so.
Since the 1980s, the Imperial district, under pressure to reduce its Colorado River water use, has made water transfers to urban suppliers in Southern California, including a major deal in 2003. These arrangements, combined with other conservation measures, have reduced the water sent to the farms by half-million acre-feet per year. Much of it was used to offset increasing upstream demands from growing cities in Arizona and Nevada.
The 2003 deal “was signed to bring us peace on the river, so we wouldn’t have to worry about these things again, and yet here we are, 20 years later,” McBroom said.
But as climate change dries out the West, “now we’re looking at cuts, not transfers,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, interim general manager of Pasadena Water and Power and former general manager of the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
California’s cities and towns have reduced their water use by 30% in the past 15 years, according to research from the Pacific Institute. Farm use dropped 15 percent between 1980 and 2015, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California.
But agriculture still consumes about 80% of California’s water.
“Urban can only supply so much (conserved) water,” Kightlinger said. “The rest has to come from agriculture.”
Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, said Colorado basin water allocations “were made before anyone could foresee a need for permanent climate-related reductions.”
To permanently reduce diversions from the river, she said, agriculture in Southern California must take a hit.
“We have to have a conversation about whether we can commit quite so much water to agriculture into the future at the expense of the evolution of economies and populations of the lower basin states,” she said.
Farmer Kevin Herman grows figs and almonds in the San Joaquin Valley and until four years ago maintained a small planting of figs in the Imperial Valley. He questioned the wisdom of using so much of a dwindling river for desert agriculture.
“Those farmers down there are putting on 7 and 8 acre-feet of water per year for hay, and I just don’t know if that’s a sustainable model,” Herman said. “There are so many people now needing that water and I just don’t think it’s the highest and best use.”
Some experts say Imperial Valley growers should shift to less water-intensive crops. Alfalfa, its leading crop, is notorious for using lots of water, as much as 10 acre-feet per acre each year. Statewide, “large acreage coupled with a long growing season make alfalfa the largest agricultural user of water,” according to a University of California report. However, it’s considered a good crop for dry places, since fields can be fallowed at little cost, giving farmers flexibility against drought.
Doremus, at the Berkeley School of Law, understands farmers’ frustrations.
“Why should the (Imperial Irrigation District) be responsible if cities have grown without adequately considering their water needs?” she said.
On the other hand, she said human needs will ultimately win. She said California’s “Human Right to Water” law of 2012 – Assembly Bill 685 – is “in a sense the most senior water right in California,” even though it was passed a century after Imperial farmers staked their claims. “If domestic water taps start to run dry, I think the water will find its way there,” she said.
There are tools available to make this happen, like permanent transfers, which she said are “totally consistent with senior water rights.”
Another option, though more controversial and probably unlikely any time soon, would be eminent domain, the acquisition of private property for public works projects.
Farmers are likely to file suit if that occurs, McBroom said. “We have Supreme Court rulings that affirm our water rights,” he said.
But court battles for water could be pointless if reservoirs are drained.
“It’s not clear what legal recourse would exist if Lake Mead were to drop below dead pool,” said Michael Cohen, a senior researcher with the Pacific Institute who studies Colorado River water use.
Fleck thinks it’s time to question whether water rights give one ownership of water — or simply the entitlement to use water when it’s available. Right now, he said, it’s not.
“What does a property right for a thing that stops existing mean?” he said.
The Impact of a Parched Colorado River
When state leaders convened in Santa Fe in 1922 to sign the historic Colorado River Compact, they doled out annual river entitlements amounting to 15 million acre-feet. When Mexico was eventually granted a small share, the total claims reached 16.5 million acre-feet.
Now the Colorado watershed produces nowhere near that much water. In recent years, Fleck said, the river’s flows have dipped below 11 million acre-feet each year. Withdrawals from the system, meanwhile, have averaged more than 13 million.
The end effect is relentless overdraft that has all but drained the Powell and Mead reservoirs, which are now three-fourths empty and dropping quickly. By summer, Powell could contain so little water it won’t be able to generate electricity through its turbines.
California’s recent offer to cut its use by 9% will help — but not by much.
“Four hundred thousand acre-feet is not a game-changing amount,” Porter said.
Rain and snowstorms this month are helping the Colorado River, but they aren’t expected to fill the reservoirs or solve its years-long, extreme water shortage.
Conserving the river’s water won’t help the Salton Sea. The Imperial Irrigation District worries that if it conserves more water, this shallow, saline lake in Imperial County will recede even more than it has, exacerbating dust problems and harming habitat for fish and migratory birds.
“We want to be sure that, if we conserve more water, and the sea recedes, which it already has been doing, that we won’t be held responsible (for reducing the dust),” said Robert Schettler, an Imperial Irrigation District spokesman.
The Salton Sea, created by farm drainage, is already wasting away. Improved irrigation has curtailed runoff, and with evaporation outpacing inflow, lake levels have dropped and its salinity has skyrocketed. Most of the lake’s fish have died out.
Its receding shoreline has left behind large areas of exposed lakebed. Beaten by desert winds, this salt-crusted playa produces toxic dust, causing health issues in surrounding communities. Asthma rates, for instance, are high in the basin.
The Imperial Irrigation District has asked the federal government for support in dust suppression projects, including building windbreaks, depositing gravel and spreading drainage water.
In November, the Department of the Interior offered $250 million for Salton Sea shoreline restoration and dust suppression. This funding, most of which is contingent upon increased water conservation, will complement $583 million in state money already committed.
A month ago, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, speaking at a water conference in Las Vegas, asked the states to propose a plan to cut their use of Colorado River water “before the end of January.” It’s unclear what missing the deadline will mean, however. Touton issued a similar ultimatum last June, and the August deadline passed without consequence.
Nevertheless, all eyes are now on the Imperial Valley as the deadline draws near.
Imperial growers are in the process of privately debating how to cut their use of Colorado River water by 10%.
Asked whether fallowing land would be an option, Schettler of the irrigation district said, “The bottom line is we want to be able to continue farming.”
For his part, McBroom said he hopes “to be part of the solution” rather than endlessly at odds with urban water users. But he worries that past efforts to conserve water and sell it at bargain rates to cities will set a precedent for more land fallowing, which, he said, would “devalue our community (in order to) enhance the value of other communities.”
He boiled the Colorado’s conflicts down to a question: “What’s more important – growing food or growing houses?”
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.