Hustling to get Imperial Irrigation District water reduction tools in place

Janet Wilson had a super helpful piece this week in the Desert Sun about steps being taken (in a hurry) to get the institutional widgets in place to meet Lower Basin commitments to reduce water use under a deal hashed out in spring 2023 to head of Colorado River NEPA litigation.

If all goes as planned, growers and owners of farm fields could be paid $300 per acre-foot for not irrigating alfalfa and other perennial feed crops for between 45 and 60 days. The plants would be stressed but would survive, and substantial water supply would instead be left in drought-depleted Lake Mead, which provides water for millions of people and millions of acres of farmland in California, Arizona and Nevada.

I wrote (with youthful enthusiasm) in my book Water is For Fighting Over about the potential of “deficit irrigation” as a water use reduction tool in Imperial and places like it. One of the reasons we have converged on alfalfa as a crop in the arid southwestern United States is how robust it is when the water runs short. From the book:

Farmers have known for years that when their water supply runs short, they can get away with skipping an irrigation cycle and their plants will survive. They’ll just have fewer bales to feed to their cattle or send off to their dairy industry customers.

Do that intentionally, for money, and you have an adaptation tool that avoids fallowing entire fields or “buy and dry”. This also works with Bermuda grass and klein grass, two other forage crops grown in Imperial. Taken together, the three crops accounted for 233,000 of Imperial’s 333,000 acres under active irrigation in June, according to IID’s latest irrigation acreage report. (Total Imperial “farmable” acreage is 436,000 acres, the rest is either being fallowed or between crops right now.)

Deficit irrigation is one of three water conservation tools on the table for Imperial, as discussed in a draft Environmental Assessment released last week. Also on the table are on-farm efficiency improvements and straight up fallowing.

All involve federal money to compensate farmers (and their irrigation district).



  1. I’m trying to understand why federal money should pay people not to use water. These are tax dollars. You could even say these are borrowed dollars, the federal budget has a deficit. This is temporary. It doesn’t fix the problem. The future is predicted to have less water in the Colorado.
    The video from the Desert Sun shows Colorado River water dumping into “percolation ponds” near Palm Springs to replenish the water table. Never seen this before.
    The use of the Colorado River was intended to produce growth in the southwest. We overdid it. Should we face that fact and first stop all development, and second, start reducing it? Not facing these choices is why the 7 states can’t reach an agreement.

  2. The devils in the details specifically water accounting RE: ac ft delivered. Who’s values do you use or believe. Measured or historical going back how far?

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