“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.”I found this comment pretty comical:
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.
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....
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.
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.Yeah, because growing alfalfa in the desert and exporting it to Saudi Arabia makes a ton of sense. But if you want a real summary of the problem facing farmers throughout California, it is this:
“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.It may take a while, but I'm pretty sure farmers are going to lose.