The stressed-out Colorado River keeps California’s desert farms alive


September 13, 2022 GMT

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) – When Don Cox was looking for a reliable place to build a family farm in the 1950s, he settled in California’s Imperial Valley.

The desert region had high priority water rights, which means its access to water it was hard for anyone to take away.

“He had in mind that water rights were very, very important,” said his grandson, Thomas Cox, who now farms in the Valley.

He was right. Today, Imperial Valley, which supplies many of the nation’s winter vegetables and livestock feed, has one of the strongest grips on the Colorado River’s water., a critical but over-exploited supply for farms and cities across the West. In times of shortage, Arizona and Nevada must cut first.

But even California, the nation’s most populous state with 39 million people, may be forced to give up something in the coming years, when warmer and drier weather will cause the river’s main reservoirs to drop to dangerously low levels. If the river became unusable, Southern California would lose a third of its water supply and vast tracts of farmland in the state’s southeastern desert would be left unplanted.

“Without it, Imperial Valley closes,” said JB Hamby, board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the rights to most of the Colorado River’s water.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact approaches. The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star, and The Nevada Independent are working together to explore river pressures in 2022.

A century ago, California and six other states – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – created an agreement that divided water into two basins and set rules for how much water each would receive. A series of ensuing agreements, laws and court cases resulted in California getting more water and made it the last to lose in times of shortage.

Fear and frustration over California’s use of the river has driven the compact since its earliest days. In the Western Water Act, the first person to draw from the source gets the highest right, and California’s cities and farmers have relied on the river for over a century.

Other Western states feared that California would claim all of the river’s water before its own populations grew. The pact and the series of agreements that followed attempted to strike a balance to protect California’s offer while ensuring that other states also received it. California, meanwhile, benefited when the federal government began building the Hoover Dam to help control the river’s flow.

Today, states are preparing for a 2026 deadline to renegotiate some of the terms to better deal with the drought and protect two important water bodies, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But first, the United States Bureau of Reclamation asked states to find a way to reduce its use by about 15% to 30% to avoid a crisis. The states did not meet a deadline in mid-August to reach an agreement, but negotiations continue and no new date has been set for an agreement.

All eyes are on California and its main water rights holders, namely the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, to see if they will give up part of their quota. Both districts say they are willing to use less water or pay others to do so, especially if cooperating means they can avoid challenges to their elders’ rights.

But they are playing shy about what exactly they are willing to give.

The river is the only water supply for the Imperial Sprinkler District, whose farmers grow broccoli, onions, carrots and other winter vegetables, as well as alfalfa and other commodities. The limited groundwater in the region, near California’s border with Arizona and Mexico, is not usable and has no access to state water supplies.

Full coverage: Colorado River 100 years old

The irrigation district has historically been entitled to more water than Arizona or Nevada, though over the years it has given up some in exchange for paying cities like San Diego and Los Angeles. In 2019, his council rejected a drought emergency plan signed by other water users in Arizona, Nevada and California.

This time, officials say the district would be open to leaving unplanted fields to save water on a temporary and emergency basis. But neither Hamby nor the board spokesmen would say how much.

State officials look to the $ 4 billion congressional pass for the Colorado River as a possible source of money that could be used to pay the district and, in turn, farmers, to use less water.

Farmers aren’t privy to all of the district’s negotiating tactics, but are trying to organize among themselves to prevent cuts being imposed on them, Cox said. Many farmers have already installed drip irrigation lines that use less water, but would be willing to adopt more conservation tactics if they were paid to do so.

Cox has already said he is making decisions on whether to plant all of his vegetable fields this fall because he receives less water than normal with a new system adopted by the council.

“With the uncertainty of water, there will be more uncertainty about the food supply,” he said.

And it’s not just farmers who rely on water from the Imperial Irrigation District. Runoff from farms feeds the Salton Sea, a huge inland lake created in the early 1900s when the Colorado River flooded. It is now rapidly drying up, exposing surrounding communities to toxic dust and killing the habitat that birds and fish rely on. The state and federal governments are now looking for other ways to support the sea in the absence of river water, and its being considered a possible site for the extraction of lithium..

“We are talking about a body of water surrounded by communities that have been marginalized for so (long), that don’t have the infrastructure or the ability to protect themselves from climate change, less water, more dust,” he said. said Silvia Paz, executive director of Alianza Coachella Valley, an organization struggling to improve the economy and health outcomes in the region.

Behind the irrigation district, the Metropolitan Water District is the state’s second largest user of the river’s water. Colorado makes up about one-third of the water supply used by the district to provide water for drinking, bathing, beautifying, and recreating about half of the state’s population. Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest, is one of many areas in Southern California that relies on river water.

It’s allowed to store some of the water it doesn’t use at Lake Mead, which California officials say has actually helped ward off a river crisis in recent years. But this year, short of other supplies, the district may actually attempt to extract some of that water if necessary, a move that would likely cause friction with other states in the basin.

The district also receives water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the state’s main water supply source. But the Delta is also suffering from drought, and this year the state only approved 5% of the required supplies. As it seeks to stabilize its water supply for the future, the district is spending billions on a water recycling plant and urging people to use less water for their lawns.

However, ensuring that the Colorado River is available in dry years when other supplies are unavailable is the district’s priority, said Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River District Manager.

Farm-rich water districts in Coachella Valley and Riverside County also get water from the Colorado River, which they use for crops like citrus, melons, and barley. The Fort Mojave Indian Reservation and the Colorado River Indian Reservation are among the California tribes with river rights.

Looking ahead, both climate change and politics are at stake as California’s water users discuss what it will take to keep the river alive.

“What they really want is reliability and predictability,” said Michael Cohen, a Colorado River expert at the Pacific Institute. “What they don’t want is Arizona screaming that Phoenix and Tucson have dried up and California is not accepting a drop of rebates.”


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all AP environmental coverage, visit


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