Politics As Usual Blocks Water Deal

Farmers, environmentalists can find common ground

Officials in the farming community of Imperial County rejected a deal to transfer water to San Diego, invoking a federal mandate that could throw water usage from Sacramento to San Diego into disarray.

Why would farmers turn down a deal that would pay them $258 per acre foot for water that they basically get for free? And now what?

The Imperial Irrigation District voted 3-2 to reject a proposal to reduce their water usage and sell their excess water to San Diego. The Bush administration says it will cut off California’s overindulgence from the Colorado River on Jan. 1, but there is not a water crisis — in the short-term. San Diego has plenty of water in reserve, and Dennis Cushman of the San Diego County Water Authority tells the Union-Tribune that they have enough water to get through at least 2003 — meaning there’s still time to work out a new deal.

But what does Imperial Valley want?

The actions of the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) are often described in news reports as the actions of ‘the farmers,’ but nothing could be further from the truth. The IID acts as the trustee for the water rights of the farmers, but because it is elected at large, it has a very different bottom line than the farming community — that is, getting elected by distributing as much of Imperial’s water wealth as broadly throughout the community as possible. And so, their decisions play well in Imperial among just about everyone but the farmers. Witness the creation a few months ago of the Imperial Valley Water Users Association, a contentious move by the farmers to try and gain more control over the process.

Farmers in Imperial Valley pay about $15 an acre foot for the water they use, but even so, profits are thin and fallowing is a normal part of the farming business. It is hard to imagine the farmers themselves invoking such acrimonious opposition to the plan that was just rejected. The discarded proposal offered payments of $258 an acre foot (over 17 times what farmers pay for the water), and even higher payments for land that is fallowed.

Gov. Gray Davis and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have both previously threatened to commandeer water from Imperial Valley if necessary. But, the IID seems intent on standing firm and playing its political cards. Upon rejecting the transfer deal, IID board member Stella Mendoza said, “If you push me around, I’ll push back.”

If a new deal isn’t reached quickly, endless court battles loom on the horizon. The big cities — San Diego and Los Angeles — are too politically powerful not to get their water one way or the other. If, or more realistically when, the IID loses in court, the precedent will be set for the coastal cities to simply expropriate the water that they need, regardless of the effects on agriculture and the environment. This would be a terrible loss.

Farmers and environmentalists in other Western States such as Oregon are using water markets to forge agreements that are good for both farming and wildlife. California should start working its way toward the same objective — or else we’ll never see the end of the water wars.

Reaching a deal that also results in stronger water rights is crucial for the health and well being of the state. San Diego and other major cities deserve to get their water, but not at the expense of farming and wildlife. The surest way to provide for allotments of water to all three of those uses is to free up water markets by de-politicizing water rights and vesting them with agricultural and environmental interests.

Environmentalists want to protect the Salton Sea, a sanctuary for hundreds of species of birds. The rejected deal ensured that flows into the sea would not decrease for at least 15 years, allowing more time to solve the ever-increasing salinity problems faced by the sea.

Farmers believe it is their water and they should be compensated. This deal was going to pay $258 per acre foot — pretty fair.

Imperial Valley politicians want to protect the region’s economy. This deal was going to provide millions to subsidize the valley.

San Diego and Los Angeles need water and are willing to pay for it.

Clearly, reaching a deal isn’t as complicated as the IID makes it out to be. So what’s the holdup? Local politics in Imperial Valley. San Diego will get its water. But if the Imperial Irrigation District doesn’t offer up a solution – and fast – they’ll have no one to blame but themselves when Imperial Valley gets the really short-end of the divining rod.

Michael De Alessi is director of natural resource policy at Reason Foundation