Clichés about water in California can seem more abundant than the water itself these days. But that doesn’t make the clichés any less true.
There’s that Mark Twain saw about how “whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’,” and the line about how water flows uphill toward money. And then there’s the time Twain fell into a California river and “came out all dusty.”
All those quips seemed fairly dead-on when I was down in the desert of southeastern California recently. I was reporting for two radio stories on how Imperial Valley farmers are facing the double wallop of an eleven-year drought (and counting) in the Colorado River basin, and the expected effects of climate change. Recent models suggest that Lake Mead — the giant reservoir that stores Colorado River water for Imperial farmers and much of the Southwest — has a 50% chance of drying up in the next 50 years. Talk about dusty. And because the Colorado is so over-allocated already, no water is left by the time the river reaches — make that attempts to reach — the Colorado delta in Mexico. More dust.
That cliché about water flowing toward money actually cuts both ways in the Imperial Valley. It once benefited farmers here. As Marc Reisner reminds us in his seminal book, Cadillac Desert, the main reason this piece of desert can grow anything, let alone supply the U.S. up to 90% of its winter vegetables, is thanks to a handful of wealthy land owners and railroad magnates. In the early 1900s they helped secure priority rights to about a fifth of the Colorado River’s total flow, funded construction of irrigation canals through nearly 100 miles of desert, and later used their considerable political clout to help convince the federal government to improve those canals and build Hoover Dam. Though, to be fair, the canals are completely gravity fed. So the water never technically flowed uphill to Imperial Valley.
But as populations continue to grow in California cities, and farmers’ political clout shrinks, water has started flowing away from Imperial Valley, up over the coastal range, to Los Angeles and San Diego. Phoenix and Las Vegas are thirsty for some of it too. California cities are already paying farmers to fallow some of their fields and to make their operations more water-efficient. In exchange, farmers have agreed to start transferring more than 300,000 acre-feet of water annually to cities, enough to serve about 500,000 households.
Farmers still have rights to more than two million acre-feet, but if the drought continues and climate models are correct, they may be pressured to give up more. John Pierre Menvielle, a retired farmer on the Imperial Irrigation District Board, says farmers can’t afford to transfer more water without doing real damage to the agricultural economy, though they may not have a choice. “We do worry about the voting populace on the coast. You’ve got 17 million votes over there.” Then he squints his eyes and adds “that’s why we have lawyers,” lending credence to Twain’s water-is-for-fightin’ remark.
Doug Kenney, of the Western Water Policy Institute at the University of Colorado, says the tug-of-war over water between farmers and cities is more complicated than just who has the most money or political clout. “It’s not just the agricultural community that wants to keep its water. The urban community typically likes to be surrounded by an agricultural community, and its viewed as a valuable amenity.” But at some point, Kenney says, economics wins. “If the cities need more water, and that water is currently in use by farms, and the cities are willing to pay 10, 20, and maybe 100 times more for that water than the farmer can, at some point that water has to move to the cities.”
But if climate in the Colorado River basin continues its arid trajectory, a massive water transfer away from farms to support more urban growth has risks. “If you’re a farmer and one year comes along and you only have half your normal water supply, well, you can probably get by,” says Kenney. But cities are less flexible in a drought. If “the city grows up on that water supply, and then you have a situation where one year there’s only half of that supply, it’s a little more problematic,” he says.
Whiskey may be for drinking, but contemplating the future of this corner of California in the face of dwindling water supplies, is pretty sobering.