The Imperial Irrigation District has more Colorado River water than anyone else. That has put them at the center of every major Colorado River Basin conversation about the transfer of agricultural water to urban users, including a particularly dramatic bit of brinksmanship going on in the fall of 2002.
The other states of the basin were pushing hard to for California to live within its 4.4 million acre foot per year allocation, which it had been breaching for years by using surplus water unused by the other states of the basin. By the 1990s, with the Central Arizona Project coming on line and Nevada finally growing its its full allocation, the gravy train was ending. California pleaded for time, and the other states agreed to provide a “soft landing” – bonus water for a few more years in turn for ironclad guarantees – an enforceable plan – to get down to 4.4maf.
That mean a big ag->urban transfer of water, which meant the Imperial Irrigation District board had to sign off on the deal. With the clock ticking toward an end-of-2002 deadline, the IID board gathered at 6 p.m. Dec. 9, 2002, at the agency’s El Centro headquarters.
Antonio Ramos, from Calexico, held up a plastic milk jug with just a bit of water in the bottom and pleaded to the board members:
If it goes through we will have no water and the Valley will become another Owens Valley – dead…. Nobody has the right to sell the water. Don’t be a Scrooge and ruin Christmas for everybody.
There is much more in the minutes, which I ran across while doing book research (thanks IID!), including activists from the metro area urging the board to keep the water on the farms and an apparently anguished Mike Cox of the Farm Bureau. The minutes, posted below, are a wonderful example of what I love to call “the pageant of democracy”.
The board voted down the agreement 3-2. Three weeks later, California’s deliveries were cut to 4.4 maf, and the world didn’t end.