Tom Philpott, who through his Mother Jones pieces has aimed aimed his considerable knowledge of our food system at California’s water problems, sets his sights this week on the Imperial Valley of southeastern California where, as he notes, “Imperial Valley’s farms gets 3.1 million acre-feet annually—more than half of California’s total allotment and more than any other state draws from the river besides Colorado.”
Water and food in the Imperial Valley, March 2014, by John Fleck
It’s important to consider Imperial’s water use in discussing California (and the Colorado Basin) water problems. But by focusing on the arithmetic of water use and agricultural production rather than the institutional mechanisms of water allocation, Philpott has missed important lessons to be drawn from Imperial about how to solve the water problems we face.
The key fact missing from Philpott’s analysis is the fact that Imperial does not use its full 3.1 million acre foot allocation. Last year it took just 2.5 million acre feet (source pdf). One can argue about whether that is or isn’t still too much water to pour on crops in a desert, but it suggests that something important is going on down there that we need to understand if we’re serious about rethinking allocation among agricultural and non-agricultural water users in California and the rest of the arid West. In Imperial, reallocation is already underway in earnest. How has that happened, and what can we learn from it as we try to broaden the conversation?
The answer is that reallocation does not happen by simply looking at the numbers and deciding, “That’s too much water over there. We need to reduce that.” The reallocation happens through a process of institutional adaptation, a complex interplay among municipalities and their water agencies, and farmers and their water agencies.
At Imperial, this started back in 1988, when the first ag-to-urban deal was signed between the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. It’s a complicated deal with a lot of moving parts, but basically Met agreed to fund irrigation distribution system improvements in return for access to saved water.
Subsequent deals have involved canal lining large and small, and have grown to include fallowing and the transfer of water for environmental flows to the Salton Sea. This has been at times ugly, with hostile politics and litigation, at times prodded by threats from state and federal authorities alleging Imperial is not being sufficiently frugal with its water use. It’s still very much a work in progress. But it has resulted in a set of institutional arrangements that have already substantially reduced water use in the Imperial Valley.
The last time the Imperial Irrigation District took its full 3.1 million acre feet was in 2002 (the river was running surpluses back then – everybody in the Lower Basin was getting a shitload of water in 2002). But look what has happened in the years since. Imperial’s water use has gone down, while its agricultural productivity (revenue figures in the graph have been adjusted for inflation into 2013 dollars) has gone up:
How has this happened?
Philpott singles out Imperial’s winter vegetable production for criticism:
Thus the Imperial’s titanic water allotment is looking increasingly vulnerable to challenge. Just as we probably need to get used to sourcing more of our summer fruits and vegetables from places beyond California’s Central and Salinas valleys, the Colorado River situation makes me wonder if we shouldn’t rethink those bountiful supermarket produce aisles in February, as well.
But the data suggest that, far from being the problem, winter vegetables are a potential solution – to the maintenance of viable agricultural communities in Imperial in the face of reduced water supplies. From the 2002 Census of Agriculture to the 2012, vegetable acreage has increased from 75,000 to 126,000, while alfalfa and other forage crops grown to feed mostly dairies has gone down (305,000 acres to 246,000 acres).
Importantly, as Josué Medellín-Azuara recently explained, vegetable production generates far more jobs per unit of water in agricultural communities than alfalfa.
This is not to say that Imperial, as an enormous user of water, does not deserve scrutiny. But it suggests our scrutiny needs to include a close look at the institutional arrangements behind these trends toward decreasing water use and increasing agricultural productivity. The institutional arrangements were used to reduce the amount of water, and then the farmers figured out what to do with the water that remained. There is something to be learned here.
A note on data: Philpott repeats the widely cited statistic that “the Imperial Valley churns out about two-thirds of the vegetables eaten by Americans during the winter.” For my book research, I’ve been spending entirely too much time digging through ag census and other data trying to sort this out, and I think it’s wrong, but I’m having a hard time quantifying what the right number might be. Imperial and neighboring Yuma County, across the river in Arizona, grow a lot of winter vegetables. The 2012 Census of Agriculture reported 126,000 acres of vegetables in Imperial and 100,000 acres across the river in Yuma. That’s essentially all winter stuff, so to the extent we’ve got a winter vegetable center down there, it’s a unified one that spans the river in both California and Arizona. (In fact, the lettuce packing houses are over in Yuma, and much of the lettuce comes from that side of the river.)
Imperial grows carrots in a bigger way than Yuma, and appears to grow more broccoli.
Winter cabbage, which Philpott cites specifically, comes primarily from Florida according to the USDA’s annual vegetable shipping reports (source pdf). Acreage in lettuce, which is the biggest component of the winter fresh vegetable supply chain, is higher on the Yuma side (71,000 acres in Yuma compared to 42,000 in Imperial, according to the Census of Agriculture).
So I don’t know what the real number is, in part because “two-thirds of the winter vegetables” is not specific enough. But you pretty clearly have to lump in Yuma to get to a big proportion of our overall winter salad needs.
update: Updated to reflect the fact that the 2002 surplus was a Lower Basin phenomenon. In the Upper Basin, 2002 was a very tough year.