Did the Imperial Irrigation district give away $246 million worth of water last year?

This is one of those headline cheats that my journalism friends heap merciless scorn upon, the question lead for which the answer is “no”.

Sometimes thinking through the implications of the doctrine of prior appropriation pretzels my brain. The idea, in short, is that the people who were there first get to use the water, and the people who came next get whats left over, and the people after that get what’s left over after that, lather, rinse, repeat.

But suppose I’m first in line but the people who came later want to make a deal. Can I sell them part of my share, just this one year, when they really, really need it?

But what if I just don’t take my share this year for some other reason? Not because I made the deal with the junior users, but just because, say, the weather was lousy and I left part of my land fallow, or it rained a lot and I didn’t need to divert. Can the junior appropriator just take my unused leftovers without so much as a by-your-leave?

Which brings us to this cryptic William Roller story in the Imperial Valley Press about this year’s underutilization of Colorado River water by the Imperial Irrigation District:

Has the Imperial Irrigation District been giving away its allotment of unused water to the Metropolitan Water District without compensation?

The unused water amounts to 245,966 acre-feet for 2010, according to preliminary figures on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Web page.

Some maintain the water has a value of $1,000 per acre-foot. And that means it could be worth nearly $246 million.

Here’s where the story is frustratingly cryptic. “Some maintain”? Who? What’s their argument? In what forum did they raise it? Whatever, the answer is “no”.

Soft farming prices during 2010 resulted in farmers not growing as much as previously, so there was less agriculture irrigation and less water usage, and for the two prior years also, King said.

“Not only that, but we had five to six inches of rain, when we normally get 2.85 inches,” King said. “And we almost doubled that. So that reflects on usage.”

No water users are compensated for water, King said. Whenever one of the seven party signatories cannot use its allocation of water, by law, the next priority user has rights to the water.