The Royal Squeeze

For nearly a century, the Imperial Valley's wastewater has kept the Salton Sea alive. Now, the push to make California more watertight may threaten this wildlife haven - and Imperial's agricultural economy.

  • photo

  • The All American Canal winds through AlgodonesDunes

    Matt Jenkins
  • Charlie Pelizza, Salton Sea National Wildlife Refugebiologist

    Matt Jenkins
  • map

    Diane Sylvain
  • Water World: The Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea seenthrough a fish-eye lens.

    Charles O'Rear
  • Blowout: The Salton Sea Authority has been testingmodified snowblowers to fight rising salinity

    Carlos Chavez, The Desert Sun
  • Don Cox

    Matt Jenkins
  • Death Spiral: Desiccated tilapia in the SaltonSea

    Don Baccus

EL CENTRO, Calif. - In this sun-dazzled stretch of the Sonoran Desert, emerald-green fields sprawl from the Mexican border north to a massive inland sea. The valley's name, coined by an agricultural booster over a century ago, invokes grand aspirations: Imperial.

The name is fitting: Today, 450,000 acres of farmland fuel a billion-dollar agricultural economy that provides about half of the country's winter vegetable crop. Fields hard-won from the desert are planted with a supermarket cornucopia of lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus and citrus, and with enormous amounts of water-intensive cattle feed, such as alfalfa and bermuda grass.

Like other empires, this one rests on the shoulders of a beleaguered working class. The valley's unemployment rate, which fluctuates with the seasonal rhythms of the fields, is the highest in California, but Mexican farmhands are bused across the border to work in the fields. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the land is owned by absentee landlords.

If cheap labor is one pillar of the Imperial kingdom, cheap and abundant water is the other. And this summer, the Imperial Valley stands at the center of a battle royal over what it has, for 91 years, jealously defended as its lifeblood: rights to a fifth of the Colorado River.

This fight is part of a 20-year push to bring a stubborn water giant into what the late writer Marc Reisner called "the era of limits," an era in which most of the major dams and water projects have been built, and now it's a matter of divvying up the water we have.

The fight is critical for more than just farmers. After years of using more than its legal share of the Colorado River, California is under the gun to reduce its water use by 800,000 acre-feet - enough for about 3 million people (HCN, 5/21/01:Quenching the big thirst). To make up the difference, the state is lining up a series of water transfers from agricultural to urban areas, and a massive transfer from Imperial's fields to San Diego lies at the heart of the deal.

But the water deal highlights a paradox. Runoff from the massive irrigation system that created the Imperial agricultural powerhouse has reincarnated the Salton Sea, a huge lake that's become a crucial haven for endangered wildlife. In replumbing the Imperial Valley to make the desert bloom, its creators unwittingly bound the valley's farms even closer to the natural environment. Now, as the Imperial Valley tries to make a difficult step into the era of limits, it's caught in a debate about how to squeeze more water out of the valley without killing the sea.

The Imperial Valley's struggle to unshackle itself from the Salton Sea is, in many ways, a story unique to itself. But it also illuminates the broader Westwide challenges of reconciling traditional agricultural demands with the new demands of booming Western cities as well as with the needs of wildlife already pushed to the margins.

After years as a prizefighter in the bare-knuckle world of California water politics, Imperial faces the possibility of giving up not only water but some of its land as well. Even some of the district's staunchest defenders concede that it may have to soften its notoriously hard-line stance.

Don Cox earned a reputation as a hard-liner during his 12 years on the board of directors of the Imperial Irrigation District. Now, the 75-year-old farmer acknowledges that the political power lies in the cities; either agriculture or the environment will come up short, he says. "Not everybody's going to come out winners."

The gospel of efficiency

From the center of the Imperial Valley, fields run flat and green to the dusty, mountain-hemmed horizon, broken only by occasional stands of date palms. The pungent tang of agriculture permeates the air as farmworkers and harvesting machines ply rows of crops. Everywhere run the canals and ditches that make all this possible in an area that receives a little less than three inches of rain a year.

Imperial's water-supply foundation was laid 70 years ago during the go-go years of the federal reclamation program: The valley draws its kingly cut of the Colorado River from behind Hoover Dam, and depends on the All American Canal to bring that water across 82 miles of desert. The Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the valley's water in trust for the farmers, has rights to more than 3 million acre-feet of water each year. It's the biggest cut of any of the Colorado River users, a group that includes cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver. The federally built infrastructure makes water not only plentiful, but cheap: Farmers buy water from the irrigation district for $15.50 an acre-foot (326,000 gallons).

Since the early 1900s, Imperial's spot at the top of the heap has made it a target for other agricultural agencies, including the Coachella Valley Water District, at the north end of the Salton Sea. Coachella was shut out of a claim to Colorado River water in 1934, when it took a lower-priority right in exchange for a federal loan to build the Coachella Canal. Since then, Coachella, hoping to win some of Imperial's water, has waged a campaign to paint Imperial as a profligate water hog.

But when a big showdown over Imperial's water finally came in the 1980s, things didn't turn out quite as Coachella had hoped. In the early '80s, an Imperial Valley farmer named John Elmore filed a complaint with the state that Imperial was violating a clause in California's constitution requiring "reasonable and beneficial use" of water. Elmore pointed to prodigious runoff to the Salton Sea, and with the sea's slowly rising waters lapping across his fields, Imperial couldn't deny that a lot of water was leaking out of its system.

In fact, Imperial's unused "tail water" constituted 1.3 million acre-feet annually, enough water for five million people. In practically every other irrigation district in the West, tailwater simply runs back into a river, where it's available for downstream users. In the Imperial Valley, however, there's no place for the water to flow but the Salton Sea (HCN, 6/19/00:Accidental refuge: Should we save the Salton Sea?). Its surface is 227 feet below sea level, and with no outlet, the lake is a terminal sink; its waters are unavailable to any other human user and are therefore, in the eyes of water law, wasted.

Elmore's complaint set the stage for a shotgun wedding. Los Angeles, hard up for water, had pushed hard for a state water project called the Peripheral Canal that would lasso water in Northern California and swing it south. But in 1982, voters shot down the plan, and L.A. was left looking for water closer to home. In 1984, the state pointed L.A.'s Metropolitan Water District toward the Imperial Valley, threatening Imperial with a forcible reallocation of its water if it didn't tighten up.

"We were actually sued by the State Water Resources Control Board and told that there was an opportunity to conserve water here and transfer it to those who would pay for it," says the irrigation district's general manager, Jesse Silva, in an expansive office with a pair of gold-plated shovels propped up in the corner. "That's what drove us to the agreement with Metropolitan."

After four years of negotiations, Metropolitan agreed to fund $233 million worth of efficiency improvements to Imperial's waterworks in exchange for about 107,000 acre-feet of conserved water.

The money from L.A. paid to line canals to prevent seepage, install leak-proof gates in the lateral canals, add extra "regulatory" reservoirs for more efficient water scheduling, and build systems to capture water that would otherwise have run off. And the irrigation district came out the other end with a near-evangelical conviction that efficiency would keep its farmers whole, working the same amount of land with less water.

"All of our activities since (1984) have been focused around protecting our water rights by getting more efficient in what we do," says Silva. "So when somebody comes after our water, we can say: "I'm sorry, but we're as efficient as we can be."

Imperial lands at center stage

Imperial claims that the Met-funded improvements pushed efficiency in its water-delivery system - from the Colorado River to the farmers' headgates - to a respectable 89 percent. But the continued existence of the Salton Sea seems to indicate otherwise.

"You explain to me how you're 89 percent efficient when a third of your water goes to the sea," says Coachella general manager Tom Levy.

That was exactly the question the federal Bureau of Reclamation asked in 1995, when it produced a study which found that, despite the conservation program, Imperial was diverting as much water as it had in 1990, and so much was running into the Salton Sea that its level was actually rising. With Imperial sitting on top of 70 percent of California's cut of the Colorado and thirsty cities on the coast in a desperate search for water, the Bureau demanded that the district conserve even more.

"(The Bureau was) preparing to come in and say, 'You don't need 200,000 acre-feet of water; we don't believe that you're using it reasonably and beneficially,'" says Silva. "So we're just going to take it away from you and give it to lower-priority users."

To prevent that, Imperial cut another deal in 1998, this time agreeing to conserve 200,000 acre-feet and transfer it to San Diego, which would pay the irrigation district about $50 million a year. And, to stave off challenges, Imperial grudgingly agreed to transfer another 50,000 acre-feet each to Coachella and Los Angeles.

That deal is now hugely significant. For years, California has used far more than its legal share of the Colorado River, drawing water that six states upriver are entitled to but had not yet needed. But in 2000, in response to concern from upstream users, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt negotiated the so-called "4.4 Plan" (HCN, 5/21/01:Quenching the big thirst). California promised to ramp down its water use to the 4.4 million acre-feet it's legally permitted, making up the difference by arranging a series of in-state transfers and conservation measures - of which the Imperial-San Diego transfer is now the most crucial.

The transfer would have been a poster child for water efficiency and the shift of water from agricultural to urban uses, except that it has steered the valley straight into the debate over the fate of the Salton Sea.

A last stronghold for birds

Bracketed on the south by the Imperial Valley's lush fields and on the north by those of Coachella, the Salton Sea is bounded to the east and west by pure dust-blown desert, a remnant of the region's primordial, pre-agricultural landscape. On an afternoon in May, in the midst of a howling windstorm, the 35-mile-long by 15-mile-wide lake is almost phantasmic: Billows of windblown dust hang over its western edge while the middle seethes gunmetal gray. In the shallows, the water is distinctly orange, flecks of salty spray blow off the wave tops, and the whole place smells vaguely of brimstone.

From prehistoric times, the sea has been a doppelganger to the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, living an ephemeral existence as the river channel alternated between dead-ending in the Salton Trough and flowing into the delta and the Gulf of California. This most recent incarnation of the Salton Sea - created by a blowout in the Imperial Canal's headgate on the Colorado in 1905 - is a lesson in contradictions: a man-made creation that teems with wildlife, including the desert pupfish, a Colorado River native that's been on the endangered species list since 1986.

The sea is best known as a crucial link in the Pacific Flyway, the major migratory bird route between central America and Canada. In the spring and fall, "it's just birds all over the place," says the Audubon Society's Fred Cagel. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded there, ranging from endangered California brown pelicans and Yuma clapper rails to white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, ibis, and a host of grebe and tern species.

Ironically, today's ecosystem relies largely on foreigners: introduced saltwater game fish like the orange-mouth corvina, croaker and sargo. The most important fish for birds is the tilapia - an African fish that escaped either from local fish farms or irrigation canals, where it had been introduced to control aquatic weeds.

But the Salton Sea and its ecosystem are in a slow death spin, propelled by nutrient overloading from agricultural runoff - which promotes algal blooms that periodically suffocate fish - and by rising salinity. The runoff from Imperial carries over four million tons of salt into the sea every year. Once there, the water evaporates at furious rates under the desert sun; the Salton Sea is now 25 percent saltier than the ocean.

As the salt levels keep rising, scientists have been surprised by what they see. "Tilapia shouldn't be surviving at these salinities, but they are," says Charlie Pelizza, the senior wildlife biologist at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. "They're probably reproducing a couple times a year, so they're able to (evolve to) keep up with that increasing salinity."

Even so, tilapia will likely die off within 15 to 50 years if the salinity levels continue to climb. Without the fish, the present ecosystem will fall apart. In the past, the migrating birds could go to a myriad other places as the lake turned salty. Now, however, more than 90 percent of California's coastal wetland habitat has been destroyed, and the Colorado River Delta - the sea's nearest substitute - has been largely strangled by extremely low river flows (HCN, 7/3/00:A river resurrected).

"There really isn't anything left for a lot of these species," says Pelizza. "This is it. This is the last stronghold."

To save the sea, in 1998 - the same year Imperial cut the deal with San Diego - Congress directed the Bureau of Reclamation and the multi-agency, state and federally funded Salton Sea Authority to find ways to stabilize salinity. The Authority is two years into a test of technological measures to combat the sea's rising salinity. They run the gamut from simple evaporation ponds carved out of the desert, to souped-up snowblowers that purge the salt, to high-tech distillation devices called "vertical tube evaporators."

Tom Kirk, who heads the Authority, says that lowball estimates for "environmental mitigation" are in the neighborhood of $300 million. "Restoring the Salton Sea at current inflows is very doable," says Kirk. "For some people it sounds like a big project - several hundred million dollars - but when you look at this compared to the ($8 billion Florida Everglades restoration), then this is a pretty good value."

But now, thanks to the Imperial-San Diego water transfer, this type of restoration is on the back burner. That's because the transfer plan calls on Imperial to squeeze out more water through "on-farm improvements." Pump-back systems would capture runoff from the ends of farmers' fields for reuse, but they'd also make the Salton Sea's salinity problem even worse: By recycling water on farm fields and sending the savings off to San Diego, they'd starve the sea of the water that keeps it alive.

The effects on the tilapia would be devastating. "If you lose the water from the transfer," says Pelizza, "(salinity) is probably going to spike so quickly that they won't be able to keep up." Remove the fish from the mix, and populations of fish-eating birds like the pelicans, cormorants and grebes could collapse within just five years.

To make matters worse, says Kirk, without Imperial's wastewater, the costs of restoration will shoot through the roof. He says the tab could range anywhere from $1.7 billion to $3 billion, pushing it into a realm that would likely never see federal or state funding: The sea doesn't have the sex appeal of the Everglades, and Congress is already being asked to foot more than half of the $8.5 billion bill for restoring the San Francisco Bay Delta.

Some groups are pushing smaller-scale solutions to offset the effects of the transfer. Michael Cohen of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, an environmental and sustainable-development think tank, has proposed diking the north and south ends of the sea, where freshwater runs in, to create smaller, higher-quality bird habitat.

Transfer hits political snags

But for all the gee-whiz technological solutions and even the less complicated ones like dikes, there's another, technically simpler option, one that's being pushed by folks like Tom Kirk as well as California Gov. Gray Davis and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Fallowing, or taking some of the Imperial Valley's land out of production, would free up enough water for San Diego. Doing that, and allowing the rest of the valley to continue leaking, would also prevent the sudden spike in salinity that could doom the fish and birds.

While Imperial conceded almost 20 years ago that it would have to give up some of its water, it maintains that giving up productive farmland would devastate an economy that, for the local working class, is already running on its rims. The $50 million per year from San Diego is enough to compensate landowners for the economic impacts of taking land out of production, but there are real concerns about "third-party impacts" on people like farmhands, irrigators and tractor drivers in a place where unemployment is around 21 percent.

"Why would we want to do something that makes that worse, when agriculture's really the only industry we have?" asks Silva. "All you've really done is transferred the huge environmental costs at the Salton Sea to huge socio-economic costs on the Imperial Valley."

And while there have been moves to circumvent environmental protection so the transfer can move forward without fallowing farmland, it's clear the endangered species issue won't be easily brushed aside. Imperial's quest for broad administrative exemptions from endangered species laws at both the state and federal level came up empty, and a move by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl to weaken California's stringent Fully Protected Species Act brought into the mix several national environmental groups for whom the Salton Sea itself wasn't originally a cause celebre.

"We've essentially said, 'Look, whatever actions you're considering, don't take restoration efforts off the table,'" says Defenders of Wildlife's California program director, Kim Delfino.

Environmentalists' concerns have changed the political climate. Kuehl's bill finally passed just before California's Legislature adjourned at the end of August, but the heavily rewritten bill granted only a limited exemption to Imperial and preserved environmentalists' ability to legally challenge any endangered species "take" permits issued by the state.

At the same time, California is under tremendous pressure from the other Colorado River users and the U.S. Department of the Interior to push the transfer through. If there is agreement, according to the 4.4 Plan, California will be eligible for 15 years of surplus Colorado River water while it makes the transfers happen. But Patricia Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies water to Las Vegas, says, "The whole interim surplus was a very fragile agreement. (California's) going to be hard-pressed getting anybody to believe anything they say if they can't make this come to fruition."

If the Imperial-San Diego transfer isn't worked out, the Department of Interior says it will slash California's Colorado River water by 15 percent at the end of the year, which could mean as much as a 30 percent reduction in Southern California's urban water supply. And then, says Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bennett Raley, there will be "extraordinary scrutiny" of Imperial's water use.

"We're very committed to working through all the issues," including endangered species issues at the sea, says Raley. But, he adds, "We don't believe ... that the well-being of Southern California can be disregarded for what may be a fairly extensive period as Congress decides how much it wants to spend on the Salton Sea."

But as this issue went to press, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians sued the Department of Interior to stop the transfer until a restoration plan for the sea is finalized.

A path toward compromise

In the absence of a quick fix, temporary fallowing has come to the fore as a way to stabilize conditions at the sea while a longer-term solution is hashed out.

The idea has an unlikely champion: longtime irrigation district board member Don Cox, who lives near Brawley. Cox, who owns 600 acres and whose two sons farm as well, played a leading role in Imperial's fight to keep control of the valley's water as newly arrived landowners tried to sell it off a decade ago.

"There's not too many guys who know what I know," he says, with a hint of a smile at a Carl's Jr. in Brawley. "I'm not smarter than anybody else, but I've spent the time on it and just about have all the pieces of the puzzle fit together."

Now, sidelined with cancer, Cox has become something of a pragmatist. Earlier this summer, he began suggesting a program to temporarily idle 25,000 acres, enough to free up about 100,000 acre-feet of water: "It's going to be harder for the regulators to get ornery with us if we put up at least 100,000 acre-feet on a short-term program," he says.

The idea of interim fallowing also gained the support of the local farm bureau. And, in early August - while reiterating its opposition to permanent fallowing - Imperial's board of directors conceded that the district could go forward with a temporary 10-year fallowing program before shifting to on-farm efficiency improvements. That would allow the 4.4 Plan to move forward as well as keep conditions at the sea stabilized, until a longer-term solution is hashed out.

Three weeks later, San Diego stepped in with a restructured offer that would provide $130 million to Imperial up front, including incentives to farmers to participate in a 10-year fallowing program.

That, combined with a temporary "retransfer" of water to San Diego from L.A.'s supply, could buy 15 more years for the sea.

But even that may not be enough. "We need more time because there are a lot of ideas out there, but they've not been thoroughly vetted scientifically," says Defenders' Kim Delfino."We've got a real uphill battle ahead of us, because we're going to have to come up with a solution for the sea and have it funded and in place in 15 years."

Don Cox says that just getting to the end of this year is going to be a struggle. "The valley still doesn't want to fallow," he says. "But I think it'd be smart to do this short-term program so we can learn if we can live with fallowing here. We've got to show that we realize there's a problem."

Matt Jenkins is assistant editor at High Country News.

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- Some see economic upside in loss of farm water

This article is the first in a two-part series, "California's Water Balancing Act."

You can contact ...

  • Imperial Irrigation District, 760/482-9600,;
  • Salton Sea Authority, 760/564-4888,;
  • The Pacific Institute, 510/251-1600,;
  • Defenders of Wildlife, 916/313-5800,;
  • Audubon California, 916/481-5332,
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