The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 19, 2014

Abundant water in California's Imperial Valley belies drought

BRAWLEY, Calif. — Thomas Cox, a third-generation Imperial Valley farmer, is driving his pickup along the gravel roads that separate large fields of lettuce, broccoli, onions and wheat.

The discussion turns, as it often does in the Imperial Valley, to water. “Without water,” said Cox, 27, “our ground would be useless.”

But with copious amounts of water, the Cox family and others have turned half a million acres of desert into one of the most bountiful farming regions in the world — a fact unchanged by the drought gripping much of California.

While other areas — including the farm belt of the Central Valley — face immediate supply cutbacks, the Imperial Valley continues to have all the water it can use.

The valley is not connected to the State Water Project, which delivers water from Northern California. Its water comes directly from the Colorado River, which has continued allocations.

The valley’s share is ensured by agreements among the seven states that depend on the river, starting with the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

In water law, one rule is supreme: “First in time, first in right.”

As a result, Imperial County, with a population of 175,000, gets 3.1 million acre-feet of water a year. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, serving 19 million people, gets about 1.1 million acre-feet.

More than a century ago, the pioneer farmers of the Imperial Valley — many of them immigrants from Asia and Europe attracted by cheap land — braved blistering summer temperatures and barren ground. Through grit and ingenuity, they pulled water from the Colorado River years before the thirsty communities of coastal California looked eastward.

The drought is largely a rumor here, but one with ominous overtones: that outside forces with political clout might try to force the valley to sell some of its water, as was done a decade ago, or even try to take a portion.

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