In defense of Imperial Valley farming

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

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:

Imperial Valley water use and farm sales

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.


  1. You may also want to note that IID’s water rights go all the way back to the 7 Party Agreement of 1931 which implemented the Colorado River Compact within California.

    That’s some very old and well-established water rights there.

  2. Wow … what short memories. The internet is standing by, awaiting your google search.

    Have folks forgotten the Bass Brothers of Texas secretly acquiring 45,000 acres of Imperial Valley land for the express purpose of flipping the water to US Filter and then to the SDWD?

    Forgotten the gun that Interior Secretary Babbitt pointed at IID — their water rights may be old but when there is such colossal waste, those rights are considered unperfected (under the CA constitution) because beneficial use is not being made (eg dirt-lined canal leakage)?

    Forgotten that the state has the power of eminent domain and can simply condemn any residual water rights (but paying fair market value) — do you think five thousand century farms were willing sellers when Interstate 5 was built from Vancouver BC to San Isidro (Tijuana)?

    Forgotten the long-running lawsuits of the Imperial Group that tried to pry the water rights away from IID in favor of individual water rights in proportion to their land-holdings?

    Forgotten that the fabulously wealthy “450 Families” owning the IID mostly live in San Diego, according to a New Yorker interview with the mayor?

    Forgotten that Yuma focuses on the winter salad whereas the Imperial Valley is primarily a gigantic, every-changing cattle-feeding operation, thus 20 month olds acceptable to Japan under mad-cow rules, then low value male Holstein calves discarded by calf-farms supplying dairy replacers to the 2100 dairy operations in SoCA (dairy cows are slaughtered after one lactation), then Mexican crossbreds fed with rough bermuda and sudan grass that could not be slaughtered in Mexico (because USDA refused to inspect), then vertical integration from flood-irrigated alfalfa (at $13 per acre-foot, delivered) to a local packing house, soon flipped to National Beef, then mothballed as JBS (Smithfield Beef) opened in Tolleson, AZ (Phoenix) made transport costs too high, with the beef maybe to follow the pork and almonds to China?

    Long term, right or wrong, most people expect the Imperial Valley will lose their water to LA and San Diego. While I can applaud the cattle feeders for their continuing cleverness in adapting to the never-ending rapid changes in market conditions, the economics could change — and quickly — to the point that there is no effective response. At that point, it may be difficult just to lease out the water annually to SDWD and the rights themselves will have to be sold if no beneficial use can be found (the lettuce market is already sated).

    Farmers can’t just switch to so-called ‘high value crops’ as urban bloggers imagine. If this were possible, they would have done it already. Wouldn’t you? Farm corporations, like any business, are already in the best ROI (after-tax return on investment capital, adjusted for risk). If that doesn’t beat a Treasury bond, they’ll just do that.

    The sticking point right now is alkali dust from a dried-up Salton Sea (air pollution, asthma). This will be a re-run of Owens Lake debacle — LADWP finally settling a Clean Air Act (Nixon!) complaint with the EPA in 2013. Owens lake — once 60 miles long and 300′ deep — was a hugely important wildfowl stopover on the Pacific Flyway. Take away that, Mono Lake, dried out Klamath Lake, and the Salton Sea — how do the birds get by the year?

  3. Tom –

    Thanks for the history lessons. I draw a different message from them.

    The Bass brothers’ effort failed. They sold and split. Both federal and state efforts to assert waste also failed. And yet water is still moving out of Imperial and into coastal Southern California, just like you think it ought to.

    Important lessons were learned in both cases – about how trying to muscle water away from Imperial will not work, but collaborative (tense, believe me, but collaborative) deal-making will work. The result of that collaborative deal-making was that IID only used 2.5 million acre feet of its 3.1 maf last year, Palo Verde used less than its full allotment, and the Colorado River Aqueduct flowing to MWD ran nearly full at 1.2 maf. (The latest numbers suggest this year will be similar.) There’s some ICS in there, but ag->urban water made up a big piece of it, and if Met had somehow gotten access to more IID water in 2014, they would have had nowhere to put it. There’s a limit to how much water LA and San Diego might usefully get out of Imperial, unless you’re arguing for building a second aqueduct. All told, there’s 3.85 million feet of ag water rights down there, and in its best years the aqueduct has carried 1.3 maf. Absent a new aqueduct, and absent remarkable changes in the Law of the River that might allow Imperial Water to go to other states, you’re not going to see farming in Imperial, Palo Verde and Coachella go away.

    Meanwhile, the ag census data (and my interviews for my book with farmers and water managers in that part of the world) clearly show movement out of lower-value crops and into higher value crops (vegetable) on both sides of the river, not only in Yuma. This is not some imagination of an urban blogger. It’s happening. That’s allowed reduction in the stuff that bugs you (cow food) on both sides of the river. Water is used more efficiently, farmers make more money, and water is moved out of ag into municipal use, while at the same time preserving an agricultural economy for the communities that were built around that. This seems like a success story.

    There are two different arguments that, I think, lead to this same place.

    One is a moral one – that’s its important to acknowledge the communities that made good faith decisions over a century based on the old ways of thinking and allocating water, and to try to make these deals in a way that respect that. The second one is realpolitik – that forcing water out of Imperial has a track record of failure, while collaborative deals have worked. Either way, you end up at the same place – a full MWD aqueduct in 2014 is evidence that what we’re doing now is working, and that we need to learn from that.

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  5. This is a great post (and I’m happy to have just discovered your work). It is looking at not only data but also political structures. As you say, “[water] reallocation happens through a process of institutional adaptation, a complex interplay among municipalities and their water agencies, and farmers and their water agencies.” As someone who studies the structures of meaning and politics of water, this is music to my ears.

    I wrote my dissertation (2014) on the social history of the Imperial-San Diego 2003 water transfer so I appreciate how positive the upswing in vegetable production looks.

  6. Good post. I too, put a different spin on some of these numbers…

    (1) On IID/Yuma production:

    (2) IID has every right, IMO, to their water. I just want that water to be valued properly. The place to start is with markets INSIDE IID. Sales to outsiders can help a LOT, but they would come later.

    (3) IID (and other farmers) do NOT grow “low value” crops, but high profit crops. Some of these are alfalfa for export, which pisses off people who think they know better than farmers on what to plant or how to make money.

    (4) Sales (quantity * price) do not equal productivity. For that, use tons produce/tons water. It’s easily possible that price explains that figure.

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