The Rockwood Main of the Imperial Irrigation District's irrigation-canal system in the Imperial Valley. Credit: Maven's Notebook

Coachella Valley residents are doing their best to cope with a disastrous drought.

“Through August, no other three-year period in California history has been this dry—even during the last historic drought from 2012 through 2016,” reports CalMatters, a California nonprofit news organization.

Because of the ongoing drought, the Colorado River is shrinking rapidly. As a result, the seven states (and part of Mexico) which rely heavily on the Colorado River to provide water to citizens and businesses—including the agricultural industry, which delivers fresh produce to much of the nation—find themselves teetering on the edge of drastic consequences.

But instead of coming together to come up with a reasonable, fair plan to deal with the crisis, water agencies, state water administrators and political representatives have been sniping at one another.

In August, the Bureau of Reclamation released a two-year study of the Colorado River Basin, used to set the annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. At the time, the Interior Department sounded an alarm, saying the drought posed a critical threat to the stability—and even the continued existence—of the Colorado River basin system.

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” said Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science, in an Aug. 16 news release. “In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River system and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the basin must be reduced.”

On Oct. 5, four Southern California water agencies came together to present a proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation, promising a 400,000 acre-foot reduction in annual water usage. The group included two valley water agencies, the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), as well as the Palo Verde Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The proposal was made public in a press release from the California Natural Resources Agency.

We asked to speak to the CVWD’s general manager, James Barrett, but the water agency declined the request, stating, “Unfortunately, the CVWD cannot discuss any details of the (Bureau of Reclamation) offer, as it is still being negotiated.”

The general manager of the IID, Henry Martinez, was willing to talk with us. Even though 97% of the IID’s water goes to agricultural businesses, the IID pledged to deliver 250,000 acre-feet of the promised 400,000 acre-feet reduction, Martinez said.

“We believe there are several opportunities that we can utilize to realize these reductions,” Martinez said. “The first option is to increase the amount of conserved water through a program we’ve been operating … which is the on-farm efficiency conservation program. We have not tapped out the maximum amount of water we can conserve using more efficient water consumption techniques on farming operations.

Imperial Irrigation District general manager Henry Martinez.

“The second portion—another tool that we anticipate using, although we have not formalized this matter—is a rotational fallowing program,” Martinez said. “Many years ago, the district had a program similar to this, which basically incentivized the farmers to do rotational fallowing of land to reduce the consumption level of water in the farming communities, and produce more water savings. It’s a less-attractive option, but it can be used in a very targeted effort to reduce water consumption.

“Fallowing land has a number of other consequences that we don’t want to see in an agricultural community. Basically, it starts affecting collateral surfaces that farmers use to maintain their farming operations. By (utilizing) seasonal fallowing, there are some reduced impacts to the community in general, because you don’t take the farming operations entirely out of service; you only do it on a temporary, rotational basis. It’s a more surgical approach to fallowing land to conserve water. Of course, there has to be compensation given to the farmers as well.

“The third element is (making) longer-term system improvements to reduce water consumption through programs like canal lining, for canals that don’t have concrete linings at this point, so it reduces seepage,” Martinez said. “Also, increasing the ability to install more efficient sprinklers … as well as improving our delivery gates to the farmers are some of the long-term programs that can be implemented. But they’re all going to cost money.”

The four California water agencies’ pledge is one of the very few reduction commitments so far. Instead, the affected states continue to bicker rather than coming up with a coordinated plan.

For example, in July of this year, Colorado Public Radio reported: “Colorado and the states that make up the upper half of the Colorado River Basin have submitted a two-page proposal (to the Bureau of Reclamation) on how they will reduce their use of the river. In the letter, water managers in the upper-basin states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—agreed that all the states need to work together to restore balance to the river system. … The upper-basin states argue that because the governments in the lower half of the Colorado River Basin—Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico—use twice as much water, the cuts should be focused downstream.”

Can you say, “Pass the buck”?

One of the Imperial Irrigation District’s irrigation canals in the Imperial Valley. Credit: Maven’s Notebook

Another example: On Oct. 25, U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, of Arizona, sent a letter to the Interior Department saying that if the federal government imposes restrictions, it should look toward California first.

“We are out of time. The hydrology of the Colorado River is unlikely to improve next year,” Kelly wrote. “The longer the department waits to press for an agreement in the Lower Basin, the more difficult this crisis will be to solve, leading only to tougher choices and litigation. … I encourage the department to outline scenarios for mandatory reductions, including accounting for evaporation losses from Colorado River contractors in California, and strengthening limitations on California’s withdrawal of surplus water that it banks in Lake Mead. Additionally, I call on the department to withhold federal funding for Salton Sea drought mitigation until California commits additional water for long-term conservation.”

Martinez expressed displeasure with the Arizona senator’s stance.

“The latest letter that Sen. Mark Kelly issued basically says that Arizona believes that California should be offering more water than the 400,000 acre-feet that we put on the table right now,” he said. “The reaction at one point (to the initial voluntary reduction proposal) was, ‘It’s great that California has come out, because nobody else has really put any water on the table, per se.’ California has been the only one so far. Then this letter came out from Sen. Kelly (stating) that California should offer more. Now he’s added this other qualification that if California doesn’t offer more water, the federal government should not put any money into the Salton Sea remediation.”

Martinez pointed out that the reductions his agency has already proposed could harm the Salton Sea.

On Oct. 25, U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, of Arizona, sent a letter to the Interior Department saying that if the federal government imposes restrictions, it should look toward California first.

“This is one of the issues that we brought up with both the state of California and the federal government: Any reductions that we do through voluntary conservation in the fields basically impacts the Salton Sea, because the Salton Sea is fed primarily with the runoff from the farm fields, and also the inflows that come in from the New River and the Alamo River, which feed in from Mexico,” he said. “So the decline of the sea will increase, and therefore, additional funds are required to provide mitigating programs and projects that will address the increasing playa that we find ourselves dealing with at the Salton Sea.”

For that reason, in the Oct. 5 letter, the four Southern California water agencies unequivocally stated: “Voluntary water-conservation actions outlined in this letter depend on a clear federal commitment to contribute meaningfully to stabilization efforts at the Salton Sea.”

What would constitute a clear federal commitment from the IID’s perspective?

“Basically, it will be a formalized agreement between the state of California and the federal government that funding will be allocated to address the impacts to the Salton Sea as a result of the decline in inflows to the Salton Sea,” Martinez said. “… This is something that’s been discussed, and is under negotiation between the Bureau of Reclamation and state of California as we speak. So that process is under way, and hopefully, we anticipate that there will be an agreement formulated and entered into here within the next month or so. That agreement will solidify the commitment of the federal government to address the issues of the Salton Sea as it addresses impacts of the drought on the Salton Sea.

“If you look at the history of the Colorado River, there are a number of contracts and agreements that have been established over the years to manage the river. They all kind of fall under the general term of ‘the law of the river.’ … When the federal government decides to take emergency actions, and (in light of) the fact that we’re addressing this issue on a voluntary basis now, any breach of those contracts and agreements that are already established … has to be brought into consideration.”

Martinez pointed out that the IID has “senior” rights to Colorado River water.

“We could basically sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re going to be the last ones to (have our Colorado River water allocation) cut, because the ‘law of the river’ establishes priority rights that have been granted to the district for many, many years as senior water rights, just like with the tribes along the river,” he said. “The (IID) board has taken the position not to play that specific card at this point. Let’s try to see if we can get voluntary contributions, and voluntary participation—more of a soft approach to get to where we need to be.”

Avatar photo

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *