Desert Valleys Renew 64-Year-Old Water Duel


As California water disputes go, the 64-year grudge the Coachella Valley holds against the Imperial Valley does not rate among the more celebrated.

There have been no armed insurrections, no aqueducts blown up, no Hollywood movies, no big city politicians or newspapers locked in combat, and no Supreme Court cases (at least not yet).

The outside world has given little notice to the aqua-centered enmity involving neighboring valleys in this hot, sandy, forbidding portion of the California desert.

But now the internecine water skirmish in an isolated corner of the state is about to have its moment at center stage both in Sacramento and Washington. The road to the state's water future may go straight up California 111 as it ribbons through the flatlands of eastern Riverside County.

It may have seemed last week that the historic water transfer between the water-rich Imperial Irrigation District and the thirsty San Diego County Water Authority--touted as key to maintaining an adequate water supply for California--was a done deal.

After cajoling and arm-twisting by Gov. Pete Wilson, the Legislature appropriated $235 million to smooth over differences between San Diego and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California over the use of the latter's Colorado Aqueduct.

Still, water wonks know a sizable hurdle remains before the San Diego-Imperial deal can become reality. They know that until the Coachella Valley-Imperial Valley quarrel is settled to Coachella's satisfaction, not a drop of water from the Imperial Valley's share of the Colorado River is likely to flow to San Diego. The budget bill says as much, in Chapter 7, Section 12562(a)(3).

Unless the farmers and water managers of the Coachella and Imperial valleys are able to strike a deal and bury their feuding past, there is a good chance that the San Diego-Imperial water transfer could be delayed or even scuttled.

Quietly, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has been trying for months to get the two sides to reach a compromise. So far, negotiations have been fruitless.

A veteran water watcher describes relations between officials of the two warring agencies as "chilly, very chilly, even when it's 120 degrees in the desert."

This week, Babbitt's hand-picked mediator will meet in Washington with representatives of the two valleys and the MWD for two more days of talks.

Coachella Valley Resents 1934 Deal

The stakes are enormous: Babbitt has threatened to reduce California's take from the Colorado River unless the state becomes more water-efficient through arrangements like the San Diego-Imperial transfer. The Colorado provides 70% of Southern California's water supply.

At issue is the Coachella Valley's fervently held belief that it was cheated in 1934 by being forced to take a back seat to the Imperial Irrigation District when it came to divvying up water from the Colorado River.

As Coachella sees it, the Imperial district--the biggest user of Colorado River water in the seven states that depend on the river--connived with the federal government to steal water that rightly belongs to Coachella.

"The government put a shotgun to our heads in 1934 and they're doing it again," grumbled Mike Bozick, manager of a grape and citrus growing and packing firm in Mecca. "The government's attitude has never changed: To hell with Coachella."

To Bozick and others, the outrage of 1934 is compounded by the current deal that would allow the Imperial district to sell up to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year to San Diego and make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Before it will accept such a deal, Coachella wants more water, maybe two-thirds as much as Imperial wants to sell San Diego. Imperial officials are resisting and also suggesting that it is time for Coachella farmers to stop festering over ancient grievances.

Coachella farmers believe that the deal between San Diego and the Imperial Irrigation District gives them what they've lacked: leverage to force a change in the 1934 agreement.

The Desert Grape Growers of California last month sent a strongly worded manifesto to the Imperial Irrigation District insisting on more water for the Coachella Valley to rectify the inequity imposed in 1934.

The Imperial general manager wrote back stiffly that "it is important to work at solving problems of the future rather than dwelling on perceived differences of the past. We encourage you and your colleagues to join that approach."

Coachella is threatening to litigate--which could block the San Diego sale and throw the carefully cobbled plans of state and federal water officials into disarray. Whether that would prompt Babbitt, or his successor in future administrations, to carry through on the threat to cut back on California's take from the Colorado River is unknown.

Coachella officials see no reason to drop their demands for more water just because Wilson and Babbitt want the San Diego-Imperial deal consummated.

"We figure on 20 years of litigation and $16 million in legal fees if it goes that way," said Tom Levy, general manager of the Coachella Valley Water District. "We're willing to wait. We've waited for 60 years already."

There is little disagreement that, for legal reasons, Levy has the power to stall or even kill the water transfer.

"He's the gatekeeper on this issue," said Jay Malinowski, chief of operations for the MWD. "Tom is in a very strong position."

David Hayes, the Department of Interior attorney assigned by Babbitt to mediate the dispute, said the long history of ill will makes it difficult for the two parties to reach agreement but that an agreement is "absolutely critical to the entire California water situation."

"Both sides need to approach this from a fresh perspective and a willingness to look to the future and not just the past," Hayes said. "Everybody needs to be flexible."

Detractors Compare Levy to Mulholland

Levy's many detractors claim that he is the most single-minded water baron in California since the passing of Los Angeles water czar William Mulholland. Levy, possessed of a jolly temperament and an iron will, delights in the comparison and had buttons printed with a picture of the cigar-chomping Mulholland and the logo "Coachella Valley Water District. 500,000 A.F."

That's Levy's way of reminding his brethren that Coachella believes that it deserves 500,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River. The district receives about 330,000, with the rest of its water needs being met by pumping ground water.

The valley's ground water reserve is being depleted by over-pumping. What's worse, Coachella farmers believe, NAFTA-bred competition from Mexico and Chile may soon force them to switch from table grapes and citrus to crops that need more water.

The result is that Coachella's zeal for water has never been greater.

"We're not against San Diego and IID having their water deal," said Lowell Weeks, for 30 years the general manager of the Coachella district and now a farmer with fields near Thermal. "We just think Coachella, for once, should be treated fairly."

Coachella's sense of injustice dates from a take-it-or-leave-it offer made in 1934 by Interior Secretary Ray Lyman Wilbur--who was on leave as president of Stanford University.

'First in Line, First in Right'

The federal government was in the process of forever changing the American West by building Hoover Dam, taming the 1,400-mile Colorado River and providing water and electricity to seven states. Lyman wanted to establish a pecking order for California water districts that were eagerly lining up to get Colorado River water.

Coachella and Imperial thought they had equal claims. Wilbur sided with Imperial because it was already diverting Colorado River water and had its own aqueduct. When it comes to water, the ruling principle is often "first in line, first in right."

Wilbur offered Coachella an interest-free, $23.5-million loan to build the 122-mile Coachella branch of Imperial's All-American Canal, which brings Colorado River water to the Imperial Valley. In exchange, Coachella had to step aside and let Imperial have a higher priority in the distribution ranking.

Coachella signed the agreement and immediately had buyers' remorse. The governing board president was recalled by angry voters.

The 1934 agreement allows the Imperial Irrigation District to use as much water as it wants to irrigate an unlimited amount of acreage. It routinely takes more than 3.1 million acre-feet for its 500,000 acres of farmland.

The agreement limits the overall amount of water that can be drawn by the top four agencies: Palo Verde in Blythe, the Yuma Project, Imperial and Coachella. Since Coachella is last among the four, it gets only the water that the other three do not want--which Coachella, with 70,000 acres, says is not enough.

In recent years, Imperial has been accused by outside agencies of wasting water, which has increased Coachella's anger. Runoff from farms in the Imperial Valley caused flooding in the Salton Sea, and lawsuits were filed against Coachella by property owners on the northern edge of the sea.

"They waste water and we get sued for it," Weeks said.

There are, however, other ways to see the same situation. One is that Coachella should quit complaining and be thankful that the pioneers of the Imperial Valley had the grit to build the All-American Canal despite daunting obstacles.

"Frankly, Coachella really (annoys) me," said Dave Nuffer, San Diego civic activist and Imperial Valley historian. "Those people would be nothing without Imperial Valley and the Imperial Irrigation District getting them the water in the first place. And all they've got down there are 85 golf courses they're trying to feed with water."

Coachella's legal position is Imperial has no right to sell water. Any water Imperial does not want should be made available to Coachella as the next in line, Levy insists. In the 1980s, when MWD wanted to buy water from Imperial, a deal to avoid litigation was reached whereby Coachella's allocation was upped by 50,000 acre-feet.

This time Levy, adroitly seizing the moment, wants a jump of 170,000 acre-feet. If Coachella is to be placated, it is unclear whose ox would be gored.

Whose allocation from the Colorado River would be decreased? San Diego? Imperial Valley? MWD? In a zero-sum game such as water allocation, one participant's gain is another's loss.

"If Metropolitan wants to pay 'greenmail' to Tom Levy, that's Metropolitan's problem," said Imperial attorney Dave Osias. "IID is not going to."

Levy rates at "about 5%" the chances that the mediation ordered by Babbitt will be successful.

"How could anyone be so dumb as to sign that [1934] agreement?" Weeks said. "Coachella should never have signed. Never."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World