EL CENTRO, Calif. - A growing number of Imperial Valley residents said the area is in serious danger, threatened by a possible change in how water rights are implemented locally, giving just a few people the power to do with water as they please.
Alex Cardenas, IID Director Division 1, said, “If they were able to sell water or transfer water out of here it would be absolutely devastating to our economy.”
Eric Reyes, I.V. Coalition and Brawley resident, said, “they will quickly dry up their farming operations, quickly put people out of work in the tens to fifty thousand to a hundred thousand employees.”
Norma Sierra Galindo, IID Director Division 5, said, “Everything would shrink to a degree where people would have to leave the area. We would go back to being the desert that we were, initially.”
Water from the Colorado River has made the area one of the top 10 most fertile in the state, a leader in ag production. Erik Ortega, IID Director Division 4, said that could be about to change.
“There’s a lawsuit that’s on appeal by the Imperial Irrigation District between IID and Mike Abatti, who’s a local valley farmer. The arguments are on Mr. Abatti’s side is that the water is appurtenant to the land and the owner of the land owns the water,” Ortega said.
IID holds a different view.
“Plaintiff feels that the water belongs to the farmers. IID feels that the water belongs to the people of the Imperial Valley,” Ortega said.
Water comes to the valley by allotment from the federal government annually.
“Imperial County has a present perfected water right of 2.6 million-acre feet of water. The Imperial Irrigation District is responsible for delivering that water to folks that are going to use it in a reasonable and beneficial way. And we have over a 100 years of history of making that happen,” Cardenas said.
The water is free. IID manages the delivery of it.
“The actual farmer does not pay for the water; he pays for the conveyance of water. He pays for the delivery of the water,” Cardenas said.
There are some rules to using this water.
“So that it’s used reasonably and beneficial, so that they can grow their crops – cannot be sold. It does not belong to them,” Cardenas said.
Farmers pay about $23.00 per acre foot.
“Farmers use over ninety-seven percent of the water in the imperial valley. Ninety-seven percent. The other percentage is used by everybody else, all of the cities, all of the businesses, all of the industries,” Ortega said.
The lawsuit filed by Abatti against IID could change all of that – Ortega said for the worse.
“If the plaintiff, which is Mike Abatti were to prevail and it was determined that the owners of the land that are irrigated with the water, own the water, the Imperial Valley would be subjected to them,” Ortega said.
Galindo said water, instead of being a public resource, could become a private one.
“And when something becomes private in the world of capitalism it goes in for sale with the purpose of making a profit,” Galindo added.
She said it could disable the IID’s role.
“Because the IID Board is the fiduciary of the water. It’s as if the water were an inheritance and we are the executors of that estate,” Galindo said.
The lawsuit was ruled on by a local judge in Abatti’s favor last year. IID has appealed that ruling. IID said the effects of that ruling could impact the area in many ways because farmers could then sell water instead of farming.
“Ultimately you’d have no farming. You’d just have the sale of water which of course would impact the whole economy here in imperial valley because it’s ag driven,” Ortega said.
“It would be disastrous. First of all, from an economic standpoint is that we’ve built an economy around water. And we’ve been able to build a 2-billion dollar ag industry here,” Contreras said.
With water possibly being limited by selling it, growth of local industries, such as geothermal, could take a hit.
“Predicted to thrive here in Imperial Valley due to all the activity that’s going on in the Salton Sea could find themselves with no access to water, causing them to maybe look elsewhere for their development,” Ortega said.
Reyes said over 24,000 ag related jobs, direct and indirect, could be put in danger.
“Farming would dry up in Imperial County literally,” Reyes said.
The ag industry contributes over two billion dollars directly to local economy, and nearly five billion dollars between direct and indirect output combined. Galindo said this could all take a hit.
“It would cut the production to where the produce – everything that we produce as far as food – could go way up,” Galindo said.
Less water in the area could mean a higher health risk.
“Salton Sea is connected to the Colorado River system, so any transfer, any water that’s sold, any water that is not going into that Salton Sea whether through drainage or anything related to the agricultural community, would be absolutely devastating to the public health of our community,” Contreras said.
Reyes added that this would also create an environmental emergency.
“Because agricultural runoff that currently flows into the Salton Sea as they farm the land would now be transferred out of Imperial County and not be used on the land. Exposing deadly, toxic dust that will be brought to us by the wind,” Reyes said.
Several local groups and organizations have filed documents called Amicus Briefs showing their support for the IID, including farmers and landowners themselves.
Wally Leimgruber, I.V. farmer since the 1970’s, said labor and farming are part of a vital economic cycle.
“As of April 18th, the Coalition just filed a Friend of the Court in the 4th Court of Appeals in San Diego to have this local judge’s decision overturned. It is incumbent that the water remains here in Imperial Valley so that these crops can be planted, harvested and sent to market,” Leimgruber said.
He fears the thought of farmers choosing not to farm anymore. He said it would devastate this entire desert southwest.
Ortega said community involvement is important. The results of this lawsuit could impact everyone in the area. He encouraged the community to attend IID meetings and stay informed.
“To please focus on this lawsuit because it deals with the livelihood, it deals with its future and it deals with the existence of the imperial valley. That’s how important this is!” Ortega said.
Both parties are now waiting for the appeals court’s decision.
“Whether they will reverse the judgement and remand it back to the court or they will come up with some other ruling,” Ortega said.
We reached out several times to Michael Abatti, the plaintiff in the lawsuit. He declined to comment.
For the moment, the fate of Imperial Valley is completely in the hands of the appellate court.