As the drought tightens its grip on the rest of the state, the Imperial Irrigation District “has been very vocal: We are not in the water transfer business,” Shields said.
Still, the strength of the valley’s entitlement to the Colorado River is open to debate — although that debate would be lengthy, detailed and passionate.
The “first in time, first in right” statute comes from a long-ago time when the U.S. needed to encourage farming in dry areas to feed a rapidly growing population, said David Hayes, who was deputy Interior secretary in the Clinton and Obama administrations and is now a visiting lecturer at Stanford Law School.
“It seems a little out of step with today, but there it is,” Hayes said.
But water law also requires the Imperial Valley to employ water for “reasonable and beneficial use.” Into that discussion can come competing claims about methods of irrigation and the advisability of planting “thirsty crops.”
It was the “reasonable and beneficial use” standard that allowed then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to begin the years-long negotiation that led to a 40-year agreement signed in 2003 for the Imperial Irrigation District to sell water to San Diego.
Although Hayes does not see additional transfer of Imperial Valley water as part of the state’s short-term response to the drought, he predicts “more and more scrutiny of how water is being used by all water users.”
The fear of losing its share of the Colorado River is part of the region’s civic DNA. Some of the earliest farmers moved here from the Owens Valley after its water was sold to Los Angeles.
The late Rick Mealey, a farmer and unofficial poet laureate of the Imperial Valley, warned in verse about “these great big people” who decided that the Imperial Valley’s water “wasn’t ours/And they needed it all somewhere else/For amusement parks and power.”