The Imperial Irrigation District’s Problem – LA Might Get the Water!

You would think that on the over-appropriated Lower Colorado River, downstream from dwindling Lake Mead, getting by on less water would be a good thing. But this little news blurb from KXO radio in El Centro, in California’s Imperial Valley, suggests otherwise.

The problem, apparently, is that the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest water rights owner in the West (I think) is using less than its full allotment this year. The extra water that it doesn’t use goes to San Diego and Los Angeles:

Last year, the District was 135,000 acre feet under. That water went to the MWD. The under usage is being blamed on the poor agricultural economy resulting in fewer acreage planted. Officials say it would be in the IID’s best interest to use the water reasonably and beneficially, whether it be in agriculture or otherwise.


  1. David, that’s just wrong. The QSA contracts were invalidated at the beginning of this year. Prior to the QSA, it was very much an open question under the Law of the River as to whether the sale by a senior appropriator to a junior appropriator was a beneficial use. Due to the invalidation of these contracts, IID is, as it should be, very much concerned with using its full allocation.

    The broader question is whether California ag. is starting to see climate change impacts. In both the IID case discussed here and the Westlands case discussed at David’s blog, farmers made planting decisions based on early estimates of bad water years, then the water year improved dramatically. What to do? Hope that an early low estimate is wrong and overplant? That’s a good way to go broke fast. Plant only for estimated water, then try to get more crops in the ground as estimates improve? That’s another way to go broke.

    Sell the water rights to San Diego County and stop farming? That’s David’s solution, but presents the problem that the water rights are held not by the farmers individually but by the local government agency — IID — in trust for the farmers within its service area. While I have heard of some discussion to dissolve IID under the Cortese-Knox Act and return the water rights to the private landowners, so far that hasn’t gone anywhere.

  2. Francis –

    Thanks. So in other words, is the risk here that if IID does not use its full allocation, it has the potential to have those senior rights declared invalid? Is that why IID believes it should be trying to use its full allocation?

  3. JF: Not so much invalid as abandoned. With the legal situation very much in flux, the last thing that the District would want to do would be to show that it has excess rights.

    Also, if you’ve ever interviewed farmers in the Southwest, they do what they do because they want to. Farming in Imperial County is a tough, hot way to make a living. I imagine that a lot of families out there see fallowing as giving up. So if people fallowed, then discovered that there was surplus water available, there’s likely to be a fair number of cranky people at the next board meeting, even if it’s no fault of the Board that BoR came out with a low estimate.

    Last I was out there (over a decade ago), the basic mentality of Imperial County farmers was that the water in the Colorado River is there to be used, and because their forefathers were there back in 1905 it’s their water, not LA’s and not San Diego’s. And the law, more or less, backs them up. They own it, they get to do with it as they please, even if it means growing alfalfa when the citizens of San Diego would pay them more not to farm.

    (Of course, a lot of money can be, and has been, spent on lawyers and experts over the “more or less” bit.)

  4. I may be wrong on this but I seem to remember that their was an administrative ruling in CA that IID was wasting some of their water right by the way they were irrigating and that was part of the impetus for the QSA. Would a court actually find waste in their irrigation practices – maybe not, but they sensed the heat was on and tried to make the best deal they could. So I agree – without the QSA they are under tremendous pressure to “beneficially” use their full allocation.

  5. @Chris — you’re right. That’s why IID is selling to MWD under the 1986 deal.

    @Francis — I did not say that IID should “stop farming.” I agree with these ST water swaps (WWD and IID), and a market (for some, not all) water would normalize these trades.

    The QSA and other laws are often barriers to the efficient use of water, under current conditions or with greater, CC-related variability. The QSA is, in fact, crap.

    As you know IID is really BAD at representing IID farmers, so that’s a different problem.

  6. David (in reverse order):

    Just how many IID board meetings have you attended? Interviewed the GM, past and present Board members? Reviewed Board minutes? IID is a public agency governed by a duly elected board, with elections being hotly contested. Last I heard, the Board was deeply divided on water issues, reflecting deep divisions in the community. So how, precisely, is the Board “bad” at representing their constituents, other than casting votes you don’t like?

    The QSA is not, in fact, crap. It represents years of negotiations by highly skilled and deeply knowledgeable individuals. Unfortunately, as the court noted, the negotiators were incapable of resolving an absolutely critical issue — financing the long-term restoration of the Salton Sea. The negotiators tried to punt to the Legislature, but it wouldn’t bite. So years of work have, apparently, failed. That’s to be expected however in water disputes.

    I love your comment that “other laws” are barriers to the efficient use of water. Dude, we are a nation of laws, and even conservative economists like yourself are expected to understand that. The Law of the River dates back to 1931. Despite your expressed desire to wipe that slate clean, in reality things are not so easy.

    For example, IID is the undisputed owner of certain water rights, under both state and federal law. For the federal or state government to extinguish those rights, so that a “market” might arise, compensation (several billion dollars worth) would be owed.

    Also, taxpayers, via MWD, own the pipeline between the Colorado River and San Diego County. San Diego County Water Authority has no more right to insist that MWD carry water that it purchases from an IID farmer than I do. (Actually, there’s some relatively recent legislation on point. But that law is trying to create a market, so it presumably has your approval.)

    Similarly, Westlands Water District needs to find storage space for about 30,000 af on short notice. Who besides MWD has that amount of space on short notice, the Kern Water Bank Authority? Who can carry the water from where it is to where the buyer is located, other than the State Water Project? Just how expensive would that water be if you paid for putting into tanker trucks?

    You keep waving your hands in the air bemoaning the lack of a market, yet you seem completely unaware of the fact that (a) residential consumers want to be served by their government and (b) no one other than a government can afford the infrastructure cost associated with moving wholesale volumes of water.

    You did say that IID should stop farming. You said, “IID needs to SELL its water.” If you sell the water, then you can’t farm with it.

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