If ever you doubted the dictum often attributed to Mark Twain that in the West whiskey is for drinking but water is for fighting over, the New River stands as proof.
Long branded the dirtiest river in America, this aquatic nightmare slithers into the United States from Mexico through this border city in the Imperial Valley.
Technically, it is not a river but a ditch carrying drainage water the color of pea soup that brims with sewage, animal carcasses and industrial waste from Mexicali. This toxic stew contains bacteria and viruses known to cause tuberculosis, polio, hepatitis and typhoid.
Drug smugglers and illegal immigrants use the smelly, sudsy river as an illicit entryway to the United States, confident that U.S. Border Patrol agents will not pursue them into the murky water.
When divers from the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department need to retrieve a drowned body from the river, they don hazardous-materials suits.
Surely no one would fight for ownership of what one county health official has called “a rattlesnake in our backyard.”
This is California. If there is water, even filthy water, there are lawyers and politicians arguing over who owns it.
The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has its eye on the New River and another local waterway in Imperial Valley, the Alamo River.
But the Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial County Board of Supervisors -- often at odds over water issues -- have closed ranks to oppose what they see as an outrageous attempt to hijack the county’s water.
“It’s a conspiracy against us, another way for them to steal more water from Imperial Valley,” said Supervisor Joe Maruca, a retired school superintendent. “You cannot trust any of these people when it comes to water. They all lie.”
A lot of water is at stake, about 900,000 acre-feet, enough for the annual needs of more than 7 million people.
Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego and author of the book “Beyond Chinatown” about the state’s water wars, says that the fight over “drinking rights to two of the most polluted rivers in the country” shows that, in California, water remains “liquid gold.”
Currently, the water from the two rivers replenishes the environmentally ailing Salton Sea, which straddles Imperial and Riverside counties.
If flows were diminished, the sea’s already high salinity level would increase, further imperiling fish and migratory birds. Also, newly exposed soil could lead to dust storms in an area that already suffers from dust in the air.
After years of debate, the state must submit a plan to “save” the sea by year’s end. But the price tag for fixing the sea could run to hundreds of millions of dollars.
The MWD, which supplies water to 18 million people in six counties, has on file with the state Water Resources Control Board long-standing applications to take water from the rivers.
If the state and federal governments decide the only affordable solution is to let the sea shrink to a more manageable size, the MWD could activate those claims, arguing that it should be allowed to clean the water and ship it to thirsty coastal cities.
“This is not an attempt to steal anybody’s water,” said Jeff Kightlinger, MWD’s longtime general counsel who was just named its general manager. “It’s an attempt to be cooperative with any attempt to help the sea.”
Some in the Imperial Valley believe the MWD is covertly encouraging state and federal officials to shrink the 360-square-mile sea. The Salton Sea was created a century ago when a canal off of the Colorado River broke and water flowed into a salt sink.
The MWD’s claims for the water from the two rivers serve as placeholders in case other agencies, or private groups, file claims. State law allows for such claims if the proposed use has a public benefit.
Imperial County supervisors are particularly perturbed that the MWD has refused to withdraw the applications despite a landmark 75-year water deal struck in late 2003 to send some of the Imperial Valley’s mammoth share of the Colorado River to San Diego, the MWD’s biggest customer, easing demand on MWD’s supply.
Many in the Imperial Valley had hoped the controversial water deal would be the last time that coastal Southern California looked to their region for water.
The irrigation district’s board approved it on a 3-2 vote only after years of arm-twisting by federal and state officials. The board member who was the swing vote was immediately dumped by voters. The Board of Supervisors opposed the water deal and is suing to block it.
Despite being at odds over the water deal, the supervisors and Imperial Irrigation District have put aside their differences to make common cause against MWD. “We recognize the MWD as the greater evil,” Supervisor Larry Grogan told the Imperial Valley Press, which closely covers all water disputes.
Late last month, the five supervisors sent a letter to the MWD board alleging that the applications, though seemingly inactive, “produce extraordinary resentment here, leading ourselves and our constituents to conclude that urban water districts are not to be trusted and will be unceasing in their efforts to take more water from this valley.”
An MWD committee last week heard a presentation about the New and Alamo river applications, including a Power Point map showing possible canals that would take the water from one or both of the rivers to the Coachella Canal or to the MWD’s own Colorado River Aqueduct.
The committee did not urge staff members to push ahead with the applications but it also did not ask that the applications be withdrawn.
After the meeting, Imperial Irrigation District lawyer John Carter advised his clients not to panic, saying that precedent is on Imperial’s side.
In the past, Carter noted, the state has advised agencies seeking to claim the New and Alamo rivers that there is nothing that can block the irrigation district from reclaiming the agricultural runoff before it reaches the rivers.
Two-thirds of the New River flow that reaches the Salton Sea comes from such runoff in Imperial Valley. Nearly all of the Alamo River flow is from runoff.
Carter’s advice notwithstanding, the dispute will not end soon.
Maruca, who spent two decades in the Owens Valley, where animosity still boils over the water “grab” by Los Angeles, is not ready to stop fighting.
“This is a hill we’re willing to die on,” he said.