From The Palm Springs Desert Sun (Sammy Roth):
A public agency and a powerful farmer are gearing up for a high-stakes court battle to determine who owns the largest share of Colorado River water in the West, complicating the river’s future as seven western states scramble to avoid severe water shortages.
There’s a long history of fighting over water in California’s Imperial Valley, which has a legal right to more than 1 trillion gallons of Colorado River water each year — twice as much as the rest of California, and as much as Arizona and Nevada combined.
But officials at the publicly owned Imperial Irrigation District say the lawsuit brought against the agency by Mike Abatti, an influential farmer, could be a game-changer for the U.S. Southwest. They say Abatti’s lawsuit could shift control of the Imperial Valley’s water supply away from the public and toward a small group of landowning farmers.
Abatti has made the same argument.
“This case presents a pivotal struggle over the ownership and control of what may be the most historic and invaluable water rights in the Southwest United States,” Abatti’s lawyers wrote in their opening brief to an appellate court in San Diego last month.
Abatti’s lawsuit is a key issue in next week’s election for one of five seats on IID’s board of directors. Norma Sierra Galindo, the incumbent, has pledged to keep fighting the lawsuit, frustrating farmers who have urged IID to settle the case. Galindo’s challenger, Carlos Zaragoza, recently received campaign contributions from Abatti’s brother Jimmy, and from another farmer who has leased land from Abatti. Zaragoza has refused to discuss his views on the Abatti lawsuit or to say whether he would support a settlement.
“As to who owns the water, that’s to be determined by the courts,” Zaragoza said at a debate earlier this month. “I would support the law as determined by the courts.”
Abatti won a sweeping ruling in Imperial County Superior Court last year. The ruling was written by Judge L. Brooks Anderholt, who presided over the case despite his long history of business and social ties to members of the Abatti family, as The Desert Sun has reported. Anderholt ruled that IID “holds mere legal title to the water rights,” and that farmers “own the equitable and beneficial interest in the water rights.” He described the farmers’ interest in the water rights as “a constitutionally protected property right.”
The Abatti case has also pitted Imperial Valley city governments, industrial developers and labor unions against powerful farmers. Agriculture uses 97 percent of the valley’s Colorado River water, and critics of Abatti’s lawsuit say giving farmers more control would cripple IID’s ability to guarantee a reliable water supply for cities and industry. The city councils of El Centro and Calipatria have passed resolutions supporting IID in the lawsuit, at the urging of a group called the Imperial Valley Coalition for Fair Sharing of Water, which was organized by former Imperial County supervisor Wally Leimgruber.
“Without access to water, there is no reason for the valley to exist,” El Centro Mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker said last month, before the city council voted 5-0 to support IID’s position. “We know that the municipalities within Imperial County use only 3 percent. But that 3 percent is the lifeline for every single person that lives within Imperial County.”