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California County Sparks Latest Water War

December 13, 2002

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EL CENTRO, Calif. (AP) _ Earlier this month, California was on the brink of a historic pact to curb its use of the Colorado River so six other states could draw their fair share. Then Imperial County threw a monkey wrench in the deal.

The county, which uses a trillion gallons of river water every year to transform a desert into one of the richest farm belts on Earth, refused to sell a drop. In doing so, California’s poorest county may have fired the first shot in the West’s next water war.

``Water is our livelihood,″ said Stella Mendoza, a cantaloupe picker’s daughter who heads the Imperial Valley’s water board. ``And I’m not willing to give it up without a fight.″

Harnessed by the massive Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, the Colorado serves 25 million people from Denver to San Diego. Seven Western states have fought over it for decades and carefully scrutinize each other’s use of the river like players playing poker for water.

The water-sharing deal hinged on Imperial County selling a portion of its Colorado River allotment to Los Angeles and fast-growing San Diego. But under pressure from residents bent on preserving jobs and tradition, county water officials said no.

Angry water officials throughout the West and within the Bush administration say the move is a death blow to a deal that took several years to craft.

``They look like a bunch of Keystone Kops,″ said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which desperately needs Colorado water. ``There’s really no choice but to cut California off.″

The Interior Department, which oversees the lower Colorado, said it will do just that: As of Jan. 1, it will withhold from California enough river water to supply 1.6 million households. Southern California water officials say they have enough reserves to offset the cut for the region’s metropolitan areas for at least two years.

Water officials around the state said there is still time to reach a deal. But so far Imperial isn’t budging. Talks were scheduled this weekend between negotiators from Imperial Valley, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Imperial County is a flat expanse of desert sandwiched between two mountain ranges east of San Diego. The county seat, El Centro, is a hardscrabble grid of low-slung stucco buildings plopped amid lush rows of lettuce, alfalfa and other crops.

Half of all jobs here are tied to agriculture, many of them held by Hispanic farmworkers. During Monday’s hearing on the plan, several people showed up in work boots caked with farm mud.

A lone voice in the crowd wondered if the tiny county was picking the wrong fight.

``Can we afford to take on San Diego, Los Angeles and Southern California?″ asked Dilda McFadden, a county worker who lives in El Centro. ``Can we win that war?″

McFadden was roundly jeered.

The Imperial Valley has little in the way of money, people or jobs. The county’s 145,000 residents have the state’s lowest median income and the highest unemployment rate. What they do have are massive amounts of land and water. About 70 percent of the state’s draw from the Colorado flows through the valley.

People here see the water as their birthright. Valley farmers in the 1900s were the first to tap the Colorado, using mule teams to dig canals that brought life to the desert.

Today, Imperial is the nation’s largest irrigation project, producing about $1 billion worth of cattle and crops each year.

``We don’t want to be a dust bowl,″ said Valerie Lee, a 38-year-old mother from Holtville who brought three of her five children to the meeting. ``What makes this a decent place to live are the farms. Without them, we’re just a dusty border town.″

Residents were particularly galled that the deal called for leaving some farmland idle to free up water for upscale San Diego.

``They want us to fallow? Maybe they should fallow some of their golf courses,″ said Larry Bratton, a 56-year-old owner of an El Centro jewelry store.

The big fear in Imperial County is that it will suffer the same fate as Owens Valley, a California farming community that saw what remained of its water _ and its future _ flow down an aqueduct to Los Angeles 90 years ago. The 1974 film ``Chinatown″ was a fictionalized version of what was dubbed the ``water grab.″

Bennett Raley, the Bush administration’s point man on Western water issues, underscored the fear Tuesday when he said Interior Secretary Gale Norton could use her authority to take water away from farmers who are found to be wasting water.

The Interior Department said Norton will discuss what she plans to do if Imperial Valley fails to reverse course when she addresses the Colorado River Water Users Association Monday in Las Vegas.

Farmers say they are required to use excess water to wash salt from the soil. About a third of the Imperial Valley’s water eventually runs into the inland Salton Sea, home to 400 species of birds.

Neil Grigg, a water expert at Colorado State University, sees Imperial as the ``most pivotal irrigation district in the whole country.″

``If the people in the Imperial Valley lost a lot of their water they would lose a lot of their water wealth,″ Grigg said. But, he added, the transfer of water to cities is bound to happen.

``The district is going to have to look at what’s in everyone’s best interest and what is inevitable and figure out some policies other than saying ’No.‴

But that’s not the way things usually work in Imperial County. As Bratton, the jeweler, said: ``It’s always been David-and-Goliath here because it’s always been something to disrupt our farm community.″

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On the Net:

Imperial Irrigation District: http://www.iid.com

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