A Few California Farmers Have Lots of Water. Can They Keep It?

A Few California Farmers Have Lots of Water. Can They Keep It?

Irrigation canals still flow full in the Imperial Valley, and the farmers know California’s thirsty cities will someday come to claim that treasure.

By John Lippert | Nov. 4, 2015

Photographs by Spencer Lowell

“You’ve been to the Grand Canyon, right?” Craig Elmore asks as he pulls his Chevrolet Tahoe to the edge of a field plowed into tidy, straight-as-an-arrow furrows, a section of the 6,000 acres that he farms—land his father and grandfather farmed before him. “Basically, right now, you’re driving over the Grand Canyon.”

Elmore speaks of the Imperial Valley with obvious pride, right down to the origins of the dirt, carried here over millions of years by the Colorado River as it carved the Grand Canyon ever deeper. These fields turn lush green every fall with the lettuce, broccoli, carrots, melons, and other fruits and vegetables that fill U.S. supermarkets all winter. It’s a scorching 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) outside his air-conditioned SUV on this August day, but from November through March, temperatures moderate, and this small section of the Sonoran Desert in California’s southeast corner becomes a perfect spot to grow food.

Dates are among the crops Craig Elmore grows.
Photographer: Spencer Lowell

Perfect, if you have water. And the farmers of the Imperial Valley have a wealth of water. A handful of landowners—about 500 farms in all—control the rights to 3.1 million acre-feet a year from the Colorado River. That’s equal to about a third of the water used by California’s cities, with 37 million people, where a four-year drought means neighbors report you if your lawn is green. Or, to measure another way, it’s half again as much water as Governor Jerry Brown aims to save under his April executive order, which set a February 2016 deadline for a 25 percent reduction in urban use. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) and can supply the household needs of about 10 people for a year, though actual water use rates vary widely.

Imperial Valley farmers know their water is precious and understand that to preserve a way of life that runs back a century they have to grapple with the needs of a drought-stricken state. Politicians, regulators, and lawyers have squeezed the valley before to get at its water. In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District, under pressure from Senator Dianne Feinstein and other federal and state officials, controversially agreed to sell as much as 280,000 acre-feet a year to San Diego. Farmers here still discuss that episode at length, and emotions are still raw, because they believe similar water transfers are likely in the valley’s future.

With so much water controlled by so few people, the farmers are a target for criticism. “The Imperial Valley belongs to a plutocracy of corporate agricultural and real estate interests that hoard water,” says Carolee Krieger, president of the California Water Impact Network, a nonprofit group in Santa Barbara. “They’re fighting to control water that California needs to preserve its environment.”

Bennett Raley, who was the U.S. Department of the Interior’s top water official when the San Diego agreement was negotiated, bluntly warned the farmers not to fool themselves into thinking they could block such transfers. “The economic pressures associated with urban growth in the West are extremely strong,” he said at a community forum in the valley in 2002, according to press accounts. Since that time, the pressures have only ratcheted up, as severe drought has drained the state’s reservoirs. And the issues California faces are being seen worldwide as the climate warms and population rises. From São Paulo to Shanghai, politicians and citizens alike worry and fight over who will get limited water resources.

The levee on Craig Elmore’s land was built by his grandfather and used to mark the edge of the Salton Sea.
Photographer: Spencer Lowell

In the Imperial Valley, some farmers are getting used to the idea, central to the 2003 agreement, that they can sell water and use the proceeds to pay for conservation measures that free up more water to sell—potentially a virtuous cycle. Some remain defiant.

Elmore, whose grandfather John arrived in the valley from Missouri in 1908, says he spends about $600 an acre to level his fields and dig ditches for maximum irrigation efficiency. “People think transferring water out of the valley is a great sin,” he says. “Wasting water can be an even greater sin.” The neatly prepared field he’s inspecting is perfectly level—he uses lasers to make sure—and slightly lower than adjacent sections so water moves by gravity at an optimal speed. He uses electronic sensors that measure the flow of moisture in the soil and says he has cut his water use by at least 10 percent.

Another Imperial Valley farmer, Ronnie Leimgruber, whose grandfather immigrated here from Switzerland in 1918, is skeptical that anyone else deserves his water. “Do we really need 127 golf courses in Palm Springs for Obama and the Hollywood elite?” He raises alfalfa, the most water-intensive crop that’s grown in California, but has taken steps to cut his irrigation use.

Jack Vessey, whose ancestors arrived during the Depression, joined a lawsuit that tried to block the 2003 San Diego agreement and failed in the end. He touts the importance of the fresh winter produce the valley’s water makes possible. “We serve 1.2 billion salads a year from my farm,” he says. “What are we going to do, take this away and feed our kids candy bars?”

Mike Morgan, Craig Elmore’s cousin, who farms another section of the property their grandfather assembled decades ago, led the landowners’ court fight against the San Diego water sale. After his long, losing legal battle, he’s convinced that powerful forces are arrayed against the valley’s landowners and determined to take more water. “The only defense is to wake up every day recognizing that this threat exists and do everything you can to justify your use of water.”

These days, any water available at $624 an acre-foot would be snapped up fast.

The most basic principle governing water use in the western U.S. is this: first in time, first in right. That’s why Imperial Valley farmers have so much water. They arrived early, building the first canal to withdraw Colorado River water and ship it to the valley in 1901. When John Elmore came to the valley more than a century ago, he worked for a time digging canals with something called a Fresno Scraper, an innovative tool for its era, with a blade something like that of a modern bulldozer but pulled by mules. In the 1930s, the federal government built the All-American Canal, which flows along the Mexican border from the Colorado River about 80 miles (130 kilometers) to the Imperial Valley. It’s the highest-capacity irrigation canal in the world (and still full).

Elsewhere in California, many conflicting water rights have never been adjudicated, but the Imperial Valley’s allotment has been defined and affirmed in court. Krieger of the Water Impact Network says all the claims on Colorado River water actually exceed the entire flow and should be re-examined. She wants government regulators to audit these allotments. But for now the valley is in a privileged position. If the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declares the first-ever shortage of Colorado River supplies in 2017, as agency officials say could happen, Arizona would take an 11 percent cut and the Imperial Valley wouldn’t lose a drop.

Ronnie Leimgruber works a gate in an irrigation ditch that can also be operated remotely.
Photographer: spencer Lowell

The federal government charges nothing for the water. The Imperial Irrigation District, a public agency, maintains the canals and other infrastructure and charges $20 an acre-foot to cover costs. San Diego, by contrast, pays $624 an acre-foot, according to a pricing formula in the 2003 agreement. These days, any water available at $624 an acre-foot would be snapped up fast.

State and federal agencies that oversee California rivers and reservoirs have reduced allocations to farms in the Central Valley, the much larger agricultural district in the middle of the state, in some cases to zero. Farmers desperate to replace lost supplies are drilling new wells and pumping so much groundwater that aquifers are being drained and the land is sinking. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which feeds most existing reservoirs, is at a 500-year low and may never fully recover as the climate warms. Meteorologists caution that even the current El Niño weather pattern, characterized by warmer-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in a section of the Pacific Ocean, may do little to alleviate the drought, even as it pushes moisture-laden storms toward California. If precipitation comes as rain instead of snow, or all at once, the help to depleted reservoirs may be minimal.

Irrigation water from the Colorado River makes winter farming lucrative in a desert region.
Photographer: Spencer Lowell

In the Imperial Valley, there have been no supply cuts, and farmers’ concerns are longer term. The key threat to their allotment, the counterbalance to those first-in-time rights, is a requirement in a 1928 amendment to California’s constitution and in federal law that water be used reasonably and beneficially. That was the lever that opened the door to the San Diego water deal and another agreement, 14 years earlier, that sends a smaller amount of water to Los Angeles. It’s a doctrine officials can invoke to challenge wasteful practices, such as sprinklered lawns in cities or flood irrigation on desert farmland.

“Agriculture accounts for 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product and 80 percent of the water consumed by humans,” says Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto. So there’s a tension between city dwellers and farmers, Levy says. “Who do you think’s going to win that fight?” His view is that urban areas should and will get the water they need if it’s being wasted on the farms—a stance many politicians and regulators echo.

Felicia Marcus, as head of the State Water Resources Control Board, has delivered a lot of bad news to California’s farmers in the past year, notifying holders of water rights more than a century old that they have to stop withdrawing supplies from low-running rivers. But she’s also pushing cities to conserve. “Agriculture is important,” she says, more important than the 2-percent-of-GDP figure might suggest. “It’s the lion’s share of the economy for a huge area of the state.” She’s wary of playing cities off against farm communities. “It’s not a competition. We need both. And both can be more efficient and resilient.”

The first real crack in the Imperial Valley’s water rights started, oddly enough, with one of the clans that has the deepest roots in the place—Craig Elmore’s family. In 1980, the Elmores filed a complaint accusing their neighbors of wasting water and, as a result, causing flooding on their land.

Some background is necessary to understand how this came to pass. The farms here stretch about 35 miles from east to west and the same distance from the Mexico border on the south to the Salton Sea, a salty inland lake with no outlet, to the north. John Elmore assembled his tract along the edge of the deep-blue Salton Sea.

Irrigated farmland covers 450,000 acres of California’s Imperial Valley.

Craig Elmore explains that his grandfather bought some of this land from the Southern Pacific railroad and other parcels from early homesteaders. Maps still mark a spot nearby as Elmore Desert Ranch. “A lot of people called this Elmore’s Folly,” he says, but it worked out fine. John Elmore ended up wealthy enough to retire to a beachfront estate in San Clemente on the Pacific Ocean, where he became one of the state’s biggest thoroughbred horse breeders. Richard Nixon was a neighbor.

Although the Imperial Valley looks pancake flat, it actually slopes down ever so gently to the north. Irrigation canals cut the landscape into neat squares and rectangles in quarter-mile increments, with water flowing by gravity from the All-American Canal in the south to every section. Water is such a part of the landscape that in decades past teenagers would sometimes water-ski on the canals, pulled by a pickup truck driving along the edge. There’s also an unusual drain network built beneath the fields because Colorado River water contains significant trace amounts of salt that must be flushed from the soil. The drainage pipes flow south to north as well, and the runoff ends up in the Salton Sea.

The Elmores started their case after tropical storms from the Pacific roared through in 1976 and 1977, dumping a deluge on the Imperial Valley each time. The Salton Sea rose and kept rising, threatening the dikes that protect their land, Elmore says. The complaint, before the state water board, blamed the sloppy irrigation habits of farmers in the valley.

A farm in the Imperial Valley is watered with sprinklers, which are less efficient than drip irrigation.
Photographer: Spencer Lowell

“If you were done irrigating at night, you might send someone to turn it off the next day,” Elmore says, recalling how water was taken for granted in that era. “You didn’t have to be a good steward.”

The case wound on for years, and it grew to involve Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, an umbrella utility that represents municipalities in the southern part of the state and is constantly on the hunt for new supplies. The board eventually ruled that Imperial Valley farmers were wasting water—violating the reasonable and beneficial standard. The Imperial Irrigation District had failed to line enough of its canals with cement to prevent leaks. It hadn’t built enough reservoirs to capture storm surges. The end result was an agreement signed in 1989 that the irrigation agency, rather than forfeit water, would send 160,110 acre-feet a year to Los Angeles in return for payments that would fund irrigation improvements in the valley.

Elmore says he never doubted his family was right. He also says that, to this day, there are farmers who won’t speak to him if they see him on the street. Elmore lives in a brown, three-bedroom ranch house in Brawley, a town of 25,000 in the heart of the valley. His mother, sister, uncle, and two cousins live within a few blocks of his house. Brawley is where Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers union led a violence-scarred strike in 1979, seeking higher wages and benefits for fieldworkers. The population of Imperial County includes many farmworkers with strong ties to laborers who commute across the border every day from Mexico, and it’s poor. A third of the children live in poverty.

Jack Vessey checks on a field of red cabbage.
Photographer: Spencer Lowell

The valley’s farm owners, though, do well. Many have decamped to the coast, as John Elmore did in his day, and lease out their property. More than half the people who own land in the valley today live elsewhere. Craig Elmore is staying put. He’s 58 years old but looks 20 years older after a ruptured stomach ulcer five years ago landed him in intensive care for 102 days, and he farms full time. The San Clemente property was sold after his grandfather died in 1976. “Farming is almost like a disease,” Elmore says. “It’s in our blood.”

The events leading up to the San Diego water deal got rolling in 2000. Arizona, with fast urban growth boosting water needs, for the first time used its full Colorado River allotment under a multistate agreement. The Imperial Valley had routinely captured surplus water that Arizona water supply agencies had let flow by. Now, the Interior Department demanded the valley live within its allotment. As negotiations dragged on, the agency lost patience, made a unilateral finding that the irrigation district was wasting water, and threatened to withhold 200,000 acre-feet a year. Senator Feinstein, a Democrat, took the cities’ side and warned the Imperial Irrigation District in a 2002 letter that the Interior Department could take the water without any compensation. “Time is rapidly running out,” she wrote.

The agency’s directors capitulated. In 2003, by a 3-to-2 vote, they agreed to sell up to 280,000 acre-feet a year to San Diego. The district also agreed to pump an average 53,000 acre-feet annually for 15 years into the Salton Sea, which by this time was shrinking, not flooding, as changing practices reduced the farm runoff reaching the lake.

“We can’t keep transferring water if it means turning the Salton Sea into an environmental ghetto.” —Kevin Kelley, Imperial Irrigation District general manager

Once a destination for recreation, with resorts along its shores in the 1950s, the Salton Sea has become a thorny issue in any water discussion. Its gradual disappearance threatens wildlife—and people. The lake bed that’s exposed as the shoreline recedes is laced with pesticides and fertilizers. When it turns to dust and gets kicked up by the wind, it can be hazardous to breathe. In the valley, children’s emergency room visits for asthma occur at twice the rate for California as a whole.

Upon approval of the San Diego deal, bureaucratically known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement, the valley exploded with recriminations and litigation. Voters swept from office the directors who supported the deal. Imperial County sued the irrigation district for failing to do more to protect the Salton Sea. Morgan, Vessey, and other landowners started their suit to block the agreement in federal court. They argued, unsuccessfully, that the irrigation agency lacked authority to sell water without a vote by the farmers who own the land to which the water rights are attached.

A crew plants cabbage and kale on Jack Vessey’s farm, working before sunup to beat the late-summer heat.
Photographer: Spencer Lowell

Vessey is still unhappy about the outcome. He complains that the $624 an acre-foot that San Diego pays is half of the going rate in the Central Valley. He hates fallowing land, which is part of the plan to supply water for the Salton Sea. Like other valley farmers, though, he adopts conservation measures.

In mid-August, when it’s time to plant 10 acres in red cabbage, Vessey’s crew of 18 people moves through the field on a new mechanized planter. Workers riding on the back drop seedlings into chutes so robot arms, rattling and clacking, can thrust them one at a time into the dirt. The work is done at night to escape the daytime heat. One man runs behind the machine with a measuring rod to make sure the seedlings are exactly 15½ inches apart, which is ideal for efficient irrigation. Vessey is also squeezing the rows together and using sprinklers instead of flood irrigation. He’s getting 20 percent more produce with 25 percent less water.

The Quantification Settlement Agreement is succeeding with some of its goals. Jennifer Gimbel, the Interior Department’s chief water officer, says it has created a legal framework for farm-to-city transfers of water that could be used as a model elsewhere in the West.

Where it’s failing, so far, is the Salton Sea.

This unique body of water was created by accident in 1905, when the Colorado River overwhelmed the irrigation system then being built, allowing the entire flow of the river to rush down into the valley, flooding what had been a dry lake bed. But it has become an important wildlife habitat. The sea is stocked with saltwater fish and even has barnacles, which probably arrived from the ocean on floatplanes. It’s a haven for 430 species of migrating birds.

The 53,000 acre-feet a year that’s being pumped in to stabilize the Salton Sea is supposed to end in 2018. In 30 years, the surface could drop 25 feet, says Michael Cohen, a researcher at the Pacific Institute in Boulder, Colorado. That could result in an additional 100 tons of pesticide-laden dust going into the air each day unless work begins soon on mitigation measures such as creating shallow wetlands where the shoreline recedes.

The Salton Sea, visited by some 430 bird species, is shrinking as irrigation practices in the valley change.
Photographer: Spencer Lowell

Imperial Irrigation District general manager Kevin Kelley says the state has failed to live up to commitments it made to fix the Salton Sea. The agency’s directors have notified the state that they may sue, seeking court permission to cut off San Diego’s water. “We can’t keep transferring water if it means turning the Salton Sea into an environmental ghetto,” he says.

If the Salton Sea is addressed, even Kelley won’t rule out more water transfers in the years ahead. He says the valley is getting used to the new era of conservation. “It may be that, here, the heavy emotional lift is behind us.”

Craig Elmore says the basic idea of more conservation and more water sales to cities gets support from most of his neighbors these days—a complete change in attitude since the 1980s, when his family pursued its case. “I’d much rather come to an agreement that’s good for all parties than have the water just taken,” he says.

It’s not clear that any agency has the right to simply take water, but it’s also hard to predict what might happen if California’s drought persists.

Jeff Kightlinger is head of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He expects his backup reservoirs to have about 780,000 acre-feet of water at year’s end, down from 2.7 million acre-feet in 2012. With 10 years’ time, it might be possible to resolve a lot of protests and prepare for another water deal, he says. But California may not have that much time. “If we have four more years of drought, all kinds of things will be on the table that are not on the table yet.”

This story appears in the December 2015 issue of Bloomberg Markets.