The Times: Essential news from the L.A. Times

Colorado River in Crisis, Pt. 5: The Valley

Episode Summary

California's Imperial Valley has some of the lowest rainfall in the state, yet uses the largest allotment of Colorado River water. How did such an arid part of the state become an agricultural powerhouse?

Episode Notes

California’s Imperial Valley has some of the lowest rainfall in the state, yet uses the largest allotment of Colorado River water. Why is such an arid part of the state an agricultural powerhouse?

Today, we look into how the region secured its rights. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times water reporter Ian James

More reading:

In California’s Imperial Valley, farmers brace for a future with less Colorado River water

Colorado River in Crisis: A Times series on the Southwest’s shrinking water lifeline

California is isolated and alone in battle over Colorado River water cuts

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: Denise, Ian, we're on Week 5 of an epic journey on the Colorado River from its beginning all the way to the end, and now we find the two of you out in the desert part of Southern California near the towns of Holtville and Brawley. I've been out there. It's, uh, out there.

Denise Guerra: That's right, Gustavo. It's about a three-hour drive from L.A. and that's without traffic.

It's this part of California known as the Imperial Valley, which stretches over Southern California, bordering Arizona and Mexico. 

Ian James: At a basic level it can just be difficult working outdoors there because It gets so darn hot.

Denise Guerra: Oh, my God. It got up to 110 degrees.

Ian James: And it is the desert. But this one part of the desert is especially rich in water. 

Denise Guerra: And it's just miles and miles of farmland and of course, miles and miles of canals that irrigate much of the nation's winter vegetables.

Ian James: All types of crops, lettuce, broccoli, carrots, spinach, alfalfa and other types of hay for cattle, all kinds of things.

Gustavo Arellano: Oh, my God. How could food even grow there without getting toasted?

Denise Guerra: Well, the winters are ideal for growing vegetables in the desert. Crazy, right? 

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah. Ha ha.

Denise Guerra: And other crops like hay grow in the summer. And so even though we are talking about a desert, it does get the largest share of the Colorado River water.

Gustavo Arellano: Why, though, would a desert get the largest share of the Colorado River water?

Ian James: It boils down to the area’s senior water rights and how they have used this water to grow crops.

Denise Guerra: So naturally when it comes to making drastic cuts in water usage, some may look at the biggest water users first, but it gets complicated because farmers we spoke with say they've already conserved a lot of water and while they are willing to do more, it could come at a great cost to their livelihoods.

Some of them told us they were worried about plans to reduce water usage of about 250,000 acre-feet. And for rough comparison, because the Super Bowl is around the corner, one acre-foot is about the size of a football field, one foot deep. 

Gustavo Arellano: Wow.

Ian James: There are lots of competing ideas about how the area’s farmers can cut back, and that's just one of the complicated issues they deal with in the Imperial Valley,

Denise Guerra: and we wanted to go there to find out more about what the serious water shortage will mean.

Gustavo Arellano: That’s why we have Episode 5, Imperial Valley Colorado River, Denise and Ian, take us there.

Intro Billboard:: The transition that has taken place in the Colorado River Basin is astounding.

The Colorado River Basin is in an historic drought.

This is a full-on, five-alarm fire going on right now.

I believe we need to be making more cuts than we are now. And it's gonna cause pain. It's gonna cause grief, but it has to be done.

The West is arid, I mean, this is liquid gold right here.

It's still a business at the end of the day. We still can't farm for free. 

Denise Guerra: I'm Denise Guerra. This is “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” Today is February 3rd, 2023.

For the unfamiliar, it would be easy to call this part of California a barren wasteland, but that's pretty unfair, considering the history of this place.

Archival footage: In 1905, the Colorado cut through its banks below the Mexican border and for two years poured unchecked into the Salton Sink, forming an inland sea.

Denise Guerra:  At the turn of the century the river flooded the valley.

Archival footage: When the river had spent its fury, it dried to a trickle. Crops withered and died. Man and his livestock thirsted.

Denise Guerra: But every year, the cycle boom and busted. The water sunk into the arid soil.

Archival footage: The river had to be regulated, controlled in a year-round flow, if they were to succeed. Arthur Powell Davis, first reclamation director and chief engineer, understood their problem.

Denise Guerra: So the Bureau of Reclamation took control of the river flow And they turned that great ambition into a major economic force. 

Archival footage: Winter fruits and vegetables, grown in the warm Southwest with Colorado River water, are shipped to dinner tables across the nation. This exchange of goods between West and East, North and South has helped develop America's free-enterprise prosperity.

Denise Guerra: In the summer of 2022, water reporter Ian James and I went to an area that draws more water from the Colorado River than all of Arizona and Nevada combined, and that was done through a major piece of infrastructure.

Ian James: This is the single biggest portion of Colorado River water here. We're looking at it in the All-American Canal. It's huge. 

Denise Guerra: This is the start. Where a canal runs across about 80 miles of desert.

Ian James: It's flowing toward the farmlands in the Imperial Valley, and in the distance we can see the U.S.-Mexico border and the border fence there.

Denise Guerra: In previous episodes, we discussed how the Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the water rights between seven different states, Colorado, of course, that's where it starts. Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and California.

Denise Guerra: So how did California end up with senior water rights? Well, it's partially based on how early it developed

Andrew Leimgruber: All the areas in the West, they, they put in the infrastructure. The farmers are the ones that dug the canal that brought the water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley nearly 50 miles away.

Ian James: Andrew Leimgruber is a fourth-generation farmer. His great-grandfather, like many homesteaders who settled in the area, had to start from scratch and prepare the land to farm.

Andrew Leimgruber: My great-grandfather immigrated here from Switzerland when he was 17 years old, and he came here and he homesteaded the original 80 acres. It was bare desert. The Imperial Valley has been farmed, you know, since 1902, and it was one of the first major water users in the lower basin of the Colorado River. Once it was established, they kind of never looked back. It just continued to expand and grow, and, and it's a very productive area. One field can produce upwards of three crops a year, so we can rotate multiple crops.

Ian James: When we met Andrew at his field, it smelled like freshly tilled dirt. Workers were busy laying out the metal pieces of an overhead sprinkler system.

Ian James: What are you planting right now? What are the vegetables that are gonna be produced on the farm this winter, on your farm? 

Andrew Leimgruber: Today we're calibrating an onion planter. So we'll be planting about 300 acres of onions over the next week. This field, once this new sprinkler system is completed, will be an organic, uh, spring mix field. So that's gonna be in your bag lettuce, possibly, you know, arugula, baby spinach, uh, will also be mixed in there.

Denise Guerra: Like many farmers we interviewed, Andrew wore a lightweight flannel shirt that buttoned up at the top, black sunglasses and had a calm, cool demeanor that makes you forget it's over a hundred degrees outside. But even if he can handle the heat, he knows that his farm can’t. It relies on irrigation from the Colorado River, water that gets more and more precious with every passing year. 

Andrew Leimgruber: Imperial Valley is 100% irrigated lands. We also do not have potable groundwater, so there you won't find wells. Without Colorado River coming here, this would be a dust bowl, dried up and there'd be nothing here. It would be uninhabitable. Our average rainfall is less than 2 inches of rain a year.

Denise Guerra: Farmers like Andrew are heavily invested in what happens with the Colorado River and how water is allocated in the Imperial Valley. So he's acutely aware of the details that ultimately affect his livelihood.

Ian James: You look at the, the data and the situation of the reservoirs. What do you think the risks are at this point, and what do you think needs to happen?

Andrew Leimgruber: Well, I, I'm really disappointed in the way that the bureau and the feds have been handling it. The reservoirs, Lake Powell, Lake Mead — we've been living off stored water, you know, and all it's been doing is we're seeing diminishing levels in the reservoirs. And for the last 15 to 20 years, the outflows have substantially exceeded the inflows, and because they've continued to kick the can down the road, now we're getting to crisis levels. I think it would've been much easier to manage and mitigate the problem earlier on. And they have a set of tools to do that. We have, um, a priority system.

Denise Guerra: Andrew spoke about the “Law of the River,” backed by the Colorado River Compact of 1922. He said there's an order of who needs to make water cuts first, and it goes by which area first developed. So, by that system, the California Imperial Valley, where homesteaders like Andrew's great-grandfather, get more senior water rights over more newly established cities in Arizona, Nevada. But because the Imperial Valley uses the largest share of water, the farmers have a target on their backs to lower their water usage first.

Ian James: Now you were talking about, uh, there are some voices who are pointing to California and the Imperial Valley and saying, we want you to be doing more. 

Andrew Leimgruber: Well, typically the dissenting voices come from the users of Colorado River that have lower priority. So you hear it a lot from Las Vegas, from Phoenix, from those municipal water sources. They don't think we should be farming in a desert. They don't realize that these deserts have been producing food longer than those cities have been metropolises, and unfortunately, I believe that, you know, higher-up politicians didn't want to be the bad guy. They didn't want to cut people off.

Denise Guerra: There's a looming unease here that mandatory cuts could be set, not just because of the strain it would cause farmers, but also because of the precedent it could set.

John Hawk: What I'm, what I'm gonna do is just dig up the seed and you'll see, like for example, there's a seed right there.

Denise Guerra: John Hawk grows crops like lettuce, onions, parsley, wheat and hay. And like Andrew he has family ties to this land. Back in the 1930s, John’s father worked on the construction of the All-American Canal, the 82-mile-long aqueduct that takes water from the river to the valley. His father used a mule team to pull a grader through the tough terrain. Today that canal is reinforced with concrete and is the only source of water for the Imperial Valley

John Hawk: We're planning romaine right here. How much are you planning to grow? We're hoping that our production will run around 1,200 boxes of romaine with, uh, 24 heads in each box. With the sprinklers we're getting, uh, more production, uh, with less water, but the expenses are quite a bit higher.

Ian James: John says he's willing to help reduce water use and that other farmers are too, but he insists that people need to respect the Law of the River.

John Hawk:  So yes, can we do less? We probably could, but remember, Arizona should be cut way more and sooner than we should, and they took the water when it was plentiful.

Ian James: Yeah, Arizona has relatively low-priority water rights for its cities because the Central Arizona Project was built in the ’80s, completed in the early ’90s, and it came with low-priority water rights. So Arizona is already being forced to take 21% less water from the Colorado River, and bigger cuts are expected.

Now that the cuts come, uh, they're, it's painful, and we understand that. No one's feels good about that. But the rules are the rules.

Denise Guerra: And while the Imperial Valley farmers have seniority by these rules, they are still very aware of the looming crisis. After the break, we learn about ways folks here are voluntarily conserving water, the incentives to reduce and how exactly they plan to do that. 

Denise Guerra: We're back. Ian, back when there seemed to be plenty of water, how did farmers usually irrigate their fields? And has that changed lately?

Ian James: A lot of the farmland in the Imperial Valley is still flood irrigated. Workers will open up canal gates and let the water flow onto the fields.

And to save water, over the past two decades, farmers in the Imperial Valley say they've become more efficient doing things like putting in sprinklers and other more efficient irrigation systems on some of their fields. And they've reduced the area's water use. 

What we hear from farmers in the irrigation district is that they're willing to do their part to use less water, but that they'll have to be paid for it, and that they want to prioritize things like make the irrigation systems more efficient, cut down on water seeping out of canals, leaks, losses, things like that, and that they would prefer not to leave many fields dry and fallow because they worry about harming the farming economy as well as food production. And they say that if it's not done right, it could lead to food shortages and higher prices at grocery stores also. 

NEW Denise Guerra: And farmers in the Imperial Valley have felt the pressure of this crisis for at least 20 years. Back in 2003, farmers had to cut water and tape under orders from the Bush administration. In reporting during that time, these measures were seen as major red flags by farmers, the early signs of crisis. Here’s a clip from the Associated Press during that time.  

AP: They're being pressured from all sides. The Interior Department has leveled a massive threat on them. Basically threatening to cut the amount of water that imperial and the rest of the state can draw from the Colorado.

Denise Guerra: This was a big reason why farmers are saving water in the Imperial Valley. Ian, can you tell us more about that?

NEW Ian James: Yeah, that's right. Under this 2003 agreement, those water savings have been achieved partly through a program in which growers propose plans for saving water on their farms. It's called on-farm conservation, and they receive payments from the irrigation district. And in the initial years of the deal, the district also paid farmers to leave some fields dry, but the land fallowing was controversial and it was phased out.

Denise Guerra: And if that's not enough, can the Imperial Irrigation District force farmers to cut water? 

Ian James: I don't know. I would guess, and this is only a guess, that if the irrigation district were to try to force farmers to cut back, they might end up with a legal fight. Farmers said they prefer to really minimize the amount of land that is left dry and fallow, but that it may be necessary, and that it should be temporary, it should be voluntary and farmers should be paid some amount for forgoing some of their water

Ben Abatti: Here in the Imperial Valley, fallowing would be an absolute last resort. Because the word “temporary fallowing”. Everybody's been very precautious about that word, temporary because historically, whenever we've seen water leave our valley, it doesn't come back.

Denise Guerra: Ben Abatti III said he's a third-generation farmer for his family's business, called Baja Farms. It's in Holtville, Calif., and runs about 6,000 acres. He says he understands that growers will need to reduce water use, but he wants to avoid taking farmland out of production. His farm operates year-round and they grow various crops. like basil, wheat, sugar beets, alfalfa, and some of those plants like alfalfa are very water dependent.

Ben Abatti And what we're doing here is we're usinga  sprinkler system. Um, it allows us to apply a good amount of water and get a great crop and pressure systems where we haven't before. 

Ian James: Ben says this sprinkler system can cost about $4,000 per acre to buy, or about $400 per acre to rent for a season. And he estimates that using these types of sprinklers on a field can reduce the crops consumption of water between 10% and 25%.

Denise Guerra: But even with these expensive water saving systems, critics say growing alfalfa uses a huge amount of water. Ian, why is that?

Ian James: Alfalfa is a thirsty crop and so are other types of hay. And some critics have pointed out that about 80% of the river's water is used for agriculture, and that a large share of that goes to alfalfa and other hay crops. But farmers say there is demand for alfalfa. Prices actually recently have hit record highs, and they say it's still a key commodity for the food supply in the U.S. and abroad. 

Ben Abatti Think about all your foods that have milk. There's no more efficient way to convert water into protein than through alfalfa and clover crops. And if it does get exported, more than likely it's gonna come back across in the form of beef or processed dairy, uh, baby formula. 

Denise Guerra: So we know that the federal government is looking to incentivize farmers to conserve water, either by paying for more efficient irrigation systems or fallowing land. But will the money that's offered be enough for farmers like Ben to give up a valuable crop like alfalfa?

And will that even prevent the river's reservoirs from drying up?

Ian James: These are big questions that have yet to be resolved. The efforts to deal with the Colorado River shortage will depend heavily on the Imperial Irrigation District. And exactly how much water can be conserved to boost reservoirs and how quickly remains to be seen. It's something I plan to keep reporting on.

Denise Guerra: We'll have more after this break.

Denise Guerra: We're back. Remember at the top of the episode, in our journey back in the history of the Colorado River?

Archival footage: in 1905, the Colorado cut through its banks below the Mexican border and for two years it poured unchecked into the Salton Sink, forming an inland sea. 

Denise Guerra: That inland sea, well it's still there, and today it's become very toxic. 

Ian James: The Salton Sea, California's largest lake. It's fed by water that runs off farm fields, and it's been shrinking for years.

Denise Guerra: As the lake dries up, valuable ecosystems are disappearing. Without the water,  hazardous dust is forming and causing major health issues for the community.

Ian James: For people who live in the Imperial Valley, the Salton Sea is right next to them, and it has been a source of more dust in the air and people are concerned about the future  if too much water leaves the area, how that accelerates the decline of the sea and what the consequences will be for their communities.

Denise Guerra: One of those farmers is John Hawk who showed us how to grow romaine lettuce from earlier in the episode. 

John Hawk: If you want us to cut our water use and do those types of things, the first thing you've got to do is take the liability of the Salton Sea, which they should have done priodically over the last 20 years and hey have not done. 

Ian James: So they've demanded that the federal government provide money to help speed up environmental projects at the lake. That includes things like building wetlands to help the ecosystem that's been deteriorating, and also to cover up dust along the shorelines that lead to high asthma rates in the area. And the Biden administration has responded with a plan to provide $250 million to speed up these projects at the Salton Sea.

Denise Guerra: And seeing what's happened at the Salton Sea shows just how much the environment has changed in the Imperial Valley. Can it sustain itself for the future? It's the same questions farmers are asking themselves, especially 21-year-old Luis Valez. He started his farming business at 19. He's the next generation of Imperial Valley farmers.

Luis Velez: This field, as you see it, it looks like the desert. There's nothing growing here, and that just shows you kind of what the valley would look like if we did not have water. So I decided not to plant anything because just of the uncertainty that growers are experiencing. I do not know if I'm gonna be able to finish out this crop if we'll have enough water. And at the end of the day, you know, we love feeding the nation, but we also have a business to run.

Denise Guerra: And he said he's also dealing with rising costs for fertilizer, fuel and other supplies, and he feels uncertain about the future. 

Luis Velez:  It's very heartbreaking that us as young farmers may not get to experience the same things that the older generations did. You know, a lot of people might not believe this, but our reality is we do not know if we're gonna be able to be here for the next 20 years.

Denise Guerra: Ian, what is the latest from the Imperial Irrigation District on the future of the water fight here in the Imperial Valley?

Ian James: Leaders of the irrigation district have pledged to make the biggest share of California's water reductions. They've said they'll reduce water use by up to 250,000 acre-feet a year for the next four years. That's a cut of about 9%. But as much as possible, they say they prefer to prioritize improving water efficiency on farms rather than leaving fields completely dry. And they also want farmers to receive compensation.

Ian James: Then, the latest news this week was that there was a federal deadline for the states to come up with a consensus plan for reducing Colorado River water use. And what happened was six states came forward with a proposal that left out California, and California submitted its own proposal. So at this stage we don’t really know what’s going to happen. The federal government has these two different plans and the states are continuing to talk about how they might reach a consensus, but so far they are at an impasse. 

 Denise Guerra: Coming up next Friday in the final installment of our series, we have one final stop on our journey through the Colorado River.

Ian James: That's right: Mexico. The river runs more than 1,400 miles, from the Rocky Mountains all the way to Baja California, and it used to flow to the sea and created this flourishing delta with wetlands and forests. But not anymore. Now most of the delta has dried up and Mexico is getting even less water from the river.

Denise Guerra: Thanks, Ian, for this conversation, and along with this podcast, our full reporting online at

Ian James:  Thanks very much, Denise.

GUSTAVO: And that's it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” Kasia Broussalian and Denise Guerra were the jefas on this episode. Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. Jazmin Aguilera and Heba Elorbany edited it.

Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera, Heba Elorbany and Shani Hilton, and our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.

I’m Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Monday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.