From The Los Angeles Times (Sammy Roth):
If, like me, you live in Los Angeles — or Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Salt Lake City — you drink water from the Colorado River. You probably eat vegetables grown with Colorado River water, and maybe you eat beef fed on alfalfa grown with Colorado River water. When you switch on a light or charge your phone, some of the electricity may be generated by Colorado River water.
The Colorado, in other words, makes life possible in the American West.
Nowhere is that more true than the Imperial Valley, a sun-baked desert in California’s southeastern corner where around 500 landowning families use Colorado River water to grow much of the country’s winter vegetables. I’ve spent lots of time there as a reporter. It’s a tragic and beautiful place. Beautiful in the way the sunlight glints across a lattice of irrigation canals that crisscross endless green farm fields, and tragic in the widespread poverty and pollution that undergird a lucrative agricultural economy.
And more recently, tragic because Imperial County has California’s highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases.
In terms of water, the valley is especially important because the Imperial Irrigation District holds a right to an astounding 3.1 million acre-feet of the Colorado River’s annual flow. That’s roughly 20% of all the river’s water allocated across seven western states. It’s about two-thirds of California’s stake in the Colorado, and as much as Arizona and Nevada receive combined.
Climate change, meanwhile, is diminishing the river’s flow, which is especially worrying because longstanding legal agreements already promise western states more water from the Colorado than is typically available, as John Fleck and Eric Kuhn detailed in a recent book. There’s a reckoning coming, unless cities and farm districts across the West band together to limit consumption.
The coming dealmaking will almost certainly need to involve the river’s largest water user, the Imperial Irrigation District.
But at the moment, it’s unclear to what extent the district actually controls the Imperial Valley’s Colorado River water.
That was the issue debated in a San Diego courtroom last week, or at least a video conference standing in for a courtroom. A three-judge appellate court panel heard arguments from lawyers for the irrigation district and landowning farmer Mike Abatti, who sued the agency to overturn a water apportionment plan that he says would unjustly limit his use of water for irrigation.
Who is Mike Abatti? As a reporter for the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, I spent many months investigating his enormous influence in the Imperial Valley. I discovered a pattern of government officials with ties to Abatti making decisions that advanced his financial interests — including a public agency that awarded a $35-million energy contract to a company led by Abatti, and a district attorney who publicly cleared Abatti of wrongdoing on the energy contract after describing him as a “good friend.”
I also found that the trial court judge who presided over Abatti’s water lawsuit against the Imperial Irrigation District — and ruled in his favor — had a long history of business and social ties to the Abatti family.
In a sweeping decision, Judge L. Brooks Anderholt found that Imperial Valley farmers hold a “constitutionally protected property right” to the region’s Colorado River water, and that the irrigation district’s elected board members have a limited ability to reduce deliveries to agricultural users. Anderholt’s ruling seemed to tilt the balance of power from the district to landowning farmers…
Lawyers for both sides focused their arguments on the central question of who controls the water.
Abatti’s attorney, Cheryl Orr, said farmers have a right to however much water they “reasonably need” to cultivate their crops, based on past use. (Farmers currently use 97% of the Imperial Valley’s water.) Orr told the judges that under established law, farmers “have a priority of water that is different and higher than just an ordinary use,” such as household drinking water.
The irrigation district board “just unilaterally determined that they were going to reorder the priorities and put agriculture at the bottom of the list,” Orr said. “They’re treating farmers as customers of the water district. And they’re not customers.”
Irrigation district attorney Jennifer Meeker countered that the agency’s elected board members have wide latitude in how they apportion water, so long as they don’t cut off deliveries to farmers. A constitutionally protected property right, she said, would give farmers “a first grab at the water to fulfill all of their past use, and then whatever’s left can go to anybody else.”
“If you get to a point where there is such a shortage that there just simply is not enough water, everybody is going to end up being curtailed,” Meeker told the judges. The irrigation district’s elected board, she said, “has the right and the discretion” to develop a plan for spreading water cutbacks fairly among farmers, cities and industrial users such as geothermal power plants.
Whichever side wins, the outcome is liable to radiate outward across the West, like a stone creating ripples in a reservoir.
More control for the landowning farmers could make future Colorado River negotiations more difficult — or make it harder for growing cities to acquire water supplies that rightfully belong to the Imperial Valley, depending on how you look at it.
It’s not just Abatti’s lawsuit that could affect Imperial’s role in high-stakes Colorado River negotiations. Local politics are an important factor, too. In April, I wrote about a contentious election for a seat on the irrigation district board. The campaign has fueled rampant speculation over which candidates might secretly be backed by which local power brokers — including Abatti.