Despite mitigation efforts, dust storms are a frequent problem on the dry bed of Lake Owens, near Death Valley. Some worry a similar fate awaits the Imperial Valley.
  • Despite mitigation efforts, dust storms are a frequent problem on the dry bed of Lake Owens, near Death Valley. Some worry a similar fate awaits the Imperial Valley.
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The San Diego County Water Authority is glowering at the north when it should be warily eyeing the east. The authority, which wholesales water to county water districts, is spending piles of money on a lawsuit against the Los Angeles–based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to communities throughout the Southland. The San Diego County Water Authority, a customer of Metropolitan, thinks it is being overcharged.

But the county water authority should be pondering what is going on in Imperial Valley. In 2003, the authority and the Imperial Irrigation District cut a deal permitting San Diego to import water from the valley. That water now accounts for 27 percent of San Diego County usage.

Until just recently, only two members of the five-person Imperial Irrigation District board were skeptical of the 2003 arrangement. But one member has resigned suddenly, and the June 5 election results suggest that, after the final November runoff vote, the skeptics could have four or five of the five votes. Such a new balance could significantly alter the thrust of the deal and force the San Diego County Water Authority to face reality about the availability of water and the need for conservation.

A report notes that lawyer David Osias has given Imperial Irrigation District bad advice.

A report notes that lawyer David Osias has given Imperial Irrigation District bad advice.

That 2003 contract must be renegotiated or it will “shipwreck our economy,” says James Hanks, a current member of the Imperial Irrigation District board. “There is a rebellion going on down here. The contract with San Diego is harming our agricultural industry” greatly because farmers say they can’t get adequate water. “Our economic engine is agriculture. Without that, we are dead.”

Indeed, Imperial Valley citizens increasingly call their homeland “Owens Valley,” the eastern California area whose water was filched by Los Angeles, as farmers were underpaid for land. One result was the infamous California Water Wars. A second result was the frightening windblown dust polluting the air after Owens Lake dried up.

If the contract with San Diego can’t be altered to give relief to Imperial Valley, “it will bankrupt the [Imperial Irrigation District] and bankrupt Imperial Valley and create another Owens Valley,” says Steve Scaroni, a third-generation valley farmer.

One critical question is whether the State of California will handle rehabilitation of the Salton Sea. The matter has been considered at the trial and appellate court levels. The California Supreme Court won’t take it up. The case is now back at the superior court level, and court watchers think the final decision may let the state off the hook.

The sea is shrinking every year, and the transfer of water to San Diego cuts off agricultural runoff that should replenish it. The sea’s shrinkage exposes mud- and salt flats, whose fine particulates and pesticide residues are carried aloft by the wind and distributed over the region. The result is “increasing numbers of kids going to hospitals for asthma,” among other health woes, says Stuart Hurlbert, professor emeritus of biology at San Diego State. The Salton Sea could be Owens Lake redux.

Hurlbert thinks the state will gladly back out of its obligation. That would leave the Salton Sea rehabilitation job largely to the Imperial Irrigation District, which can’t afford it. Last year, the district hired Charles DuMars, a New Mexico expert in water law, to study the situation. “If the state fails to cover the environmental and social costs to the Imperial Valley as a result of the decline in the Salton Sea,” DuMars wrote, the partners in the big water transfer, including San Diego, “must shoulder that additional burden.”

Wrote DuMars, “Failure to properly address the Salton Sea issues could contribute to the destruction of the health, quality of life, and economic base of the valley.” Hurlbert says the rehabilitation could be done cheaply if the water stayed in the valley.

Hanks belongs to the 54950 Commission, an activist group that rides herd on local government. The commission recently came out with a report concluding that the irrigation district “has come to be governed under a system of ‘adverse domination,’ in which private interests mostly outside Imperial Valley benefit at the expense of the Imperial Valley.”

The report notes that San Diego attorney David Osias is the lawyer for the irrigation district and is managing partner of the firm Allen Matkins, which specializes in real estate. Osias has given the Imperial irrigation district bad advice that has been a boon for San Diego real estate developers, say Hanks and Scaroni. In turn, the San Diego County Water Authority “is dominated by the real estate industry,” says Hurlbert.

“We’re just a pimple on [Osias’s] butt compared to his clients [in San Diego],” says Hanks. In counting on the state to pick up the tab for Salton Sea rehabilitation, “our lawyers blew it. We can’t afford to mitigate.”

In effect, the water needs of San Diego developers are dictating Imperial Valley policy, says San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre, a co-author of the 54950 Commission report. “The [San Diego] developers want to develop but not pay for infrastructure needed to support the development,” says Aguirre.

Dennis Cushman doesn’t expect the water authority will have to share Salton Sea rehab costs.

Dennis Cushman doesn’t expect the water authority will have to share Salton Sea rehab costs.

Osias says Scaroni and his friends are orchestrating “a smear campaign” to oust two Imperial Irrigation District directors. Lawsuits by Scaroni and fellow farmers against the district have lost consistently. Osias says it is “nonsense” that he is working on behalf of San Diego developers. “There is no reason to think that the state will not meet its binding contractual obligation [on Salton Sea rehabilitation].”

Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, does not anticipate that the authority will have to share in the Salton Sea rehabilitation cost. “We work to press the state to fulfill its commitment,” he says.

But, says University of California San Diego political scientist Steve Erie, “There is a time bomb called the Salton Sea. The environmental problems of the Salton Sea make the drying up of Owens Lake look like a walk in the park. It will blow up the [water transfer deal], and the mitigation costs will be piled on San Diego ratepayers.” ■

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stingray June 20, 2012 @ 8:31 a.m.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We all know the story of how the Army accidentally turned a dry lake bed into the Salton Sea. And the Imperial Valley was a desert. There are no good guys here. It's "BIG AG" vs "BIG DEV". and yes the ratepayers will take it in the shorts.


Don Bauder June 20, 2012 @ 8:52 a.m.

Salton Sea's creation was accidental, yes. But as you point out, this is a matter of fact, not a matter of blame. For the sake of the Imperial Valley economy and the health of its citizens, some rehabilitation must be done, and neither the state nor Imperial can afford it. You and Steve Erie are right: San Diego ratepayers will have to endure even more water rate increases. Best, Don Bauder


MikeHosley July 22, 2012 @ 3:08 a.m.

You can't get anything done from Yuma to Imperial Vally unless you are "from there" on a macro or micro level. Period. Not possible, Actually, let's just toss San Luis Rio Del Colorado, and the border towns from from Calexico to San Luis into the pot. No one woud dare comment on articles about the "other side", where the earthquake broke apart the irrigation channels for fear of reprisal. Billions poured into Haiti, and not a drop- literally nothing into the desert, and deserted victims just South of Yuma and Imperial Valley. Mike Hosley


BobDorn June 20, 2012 @ 9:27 a.m.

Don Bauder has gotten down to the page yet another story with the potential to expose San Diego's permanent government. Development is the local equivalent of the arms and investment banking industry (pretty much our major national job creator, and a San Diego partner). The model is old and we're near bankruptcy already; there isn't enough money in consumer pockets to buy homes already planted at San Diego's margins. But developers, people like Papa Manchester, and outside investment banks will continue to suck the already dry well. Mention the solution to our water problem -- desalination -- and suddenly an army of DeMaios rises up to smother the idea. I'll bet on desalination. If it works for Saudi Arabia, Israel and the island of Mallorca it will work for this desert paradise.


Don Bauder June 20, 2012 @ 10:33 a.m.

Yes, development pushes the San Diego economy and owns its politicians. As economist Kelly Cunningham has pointed out, real estate has been as high as 20% of the San Diego economy -- third highest in the nation (Orlando to no one's surprise was first at the time.) The percentage is now lower, but the developers still dominate the economy and the politics. The bottom line of what is going on in Imperial is that San Diego development requires water, and Imperial, which has been supplying it, can no longer do so. Real estate development MUST decline in San Diego. This means population growth must also decline even more than it already has. The San Diego politicians in developers' pockets must find another source of succor, and local taxpayers and water/utility ratepayers cannot continue to be the suckers. Best, Don Bauder


JohnMackey June 20, 2012 @ 6:36 p.m.

Bob, You are right. As it stands, the city will be importing more Colorado River water. This is salty water, Bob. They will end up having to desalinate it, anyway. Meantime, The Salton Sea (At 400 Square Miles, it's the state's largest lake) will dry-up and its playa will wreck havoc on the local atmosphere, if the city goes ahead next year and begins to take many acre-feet we need to save the Sea.


Don Bauder June 20, 2012 @ 11:04 p.m.

Bob's feeling that desalination is the ultimate answer may be right on the money. Best, Don Bauder


GrokSurf June 20, 2012 @ 10:18 a.m.

We should keep in mind that creation of the Salton Sea as we know it is just the most recent time the Salton Sink has filled and evaporated due to the meandering Colorado River over the ages.


Don Bauder June 20, 2012 @ 10:35 a.m.

That is another variable in the mix. The Colorado River holds the key to the future in Southern California, Arizona, and other Western locales. And that long term future looks grim now. Best, Don Bauder


JohnMackey June 20, 2012 @ 5:46 p.m.

San Diego already consumes 27% Colorado River water, the article stated. The rest of the local drinking water comes from (way up) North. More water is coming from The Colorado soon, due to an historic water transfer deal, sealed in 2003. If no action is taken, the 'Sea' will totally evaporate and leave ever-widening strands of beach dry into playa. The residue of 100 years of agricultural drainage (including DDT til 1972) Will blow through the Valley. The "Janet Reno Plan" envisions accomodation with the city of Mexicali to import their wastewater into adjacent Calexico to be cleansed before sending it down The New River, 67-miles to The Salton Sea. There should be enough to offset the yearly loss from evaporation. The salinity problem would be improved. No agricultural run-off/No algae blooms that stink. Sport-Fishing could be re-introduced. We're asking Ms Reno to go into federal court and contest the perfection of MWD's Lien on The New River.


Don Bauder June 20, 2012 @ 11:06 p.m.

Some San Diego water is captured locally (from rainfall, etc.) but it's not a high percentage. Best, Don Bauder


Don Bauder June 21, 2012 @ 9:32 a.m.

My recollection is that you are right. Best, Don Bauder


historymatters June 20, 2012 @ 10:29 p.m.

Owens valley is beautiful because the developers couldnt develop it w/o the water so Im all for more Owens Valleys


Don Bauder June 20, 2012 @ 11:09 p.m.

Yes, developers can't destroy Owens Valley, but it's not so pleasant when the wind blows. Besides, developers aren't eyeing it now. There is very little population close by. Best, Don Bauder


Visduh June 23, 2012 @ 2:22 p.m.

One point lost in all the foregoing is the artificiality of the agriculture of the Imperial Valley. Were it not for them stealing water from the Colorado River (stealing in a physical sense, not a legal sense) there would be little or no agriculture there. A century ago, that valley was touted as one of the most productive regions in the nation, and a variety of high-value crops were grown there. Cotton was prominently mentioned, as were melons. But now, or as of a few years back, the biggest crop in the valley is hay. Hay? Oh, some is fed to cattle in the same area and supports the cattle industry. But much goes to urban San Diego, Orange, LA and nearby counties to feed to horses. Horses are almost a purely recreational thing nowadays, and something that urbanites could do without. It all adds up to much of that scarce water now used in the valley being used for nothing more valuable or important than growing hay for horses that the owners seldom ride.


Don Bauder June 23, 2012 @ 4:10 p.m.

A big percentage of California water goes for ag purposes. And some of those purposes, as you point out, can be questioned. Best, don bauder


storehouse June 25, 2012 @ 7:15 a.m.

I agree, why concern ourselves with American Agriculture infrastructure, when Wal-Mart and Vons have all the food we need. We may as well let China make our food to repay our debt to them and they will provide a safer food than the USA. We should truct China! We need to develop more housing in San Diego so we can lower our standards of living to compete with the rest of the world, thus provide low income housing to create our own work force for our beautiful City’s gardeners and hotel maids. Then we can say that we are creating jobs, just like our government does. Who cares about a bunch of dirt farmers anyway! Why be a producing economy, when we should continue to be a service economy?


Don Bauder June 25, 2012 @ 8:53 a.m.

Methinks I detect very effective and perceptive sarcasm. You have fingered the financial engineering mentality that is destroying us. Best, don bauder


ImJustABill June 25, 2012 @ 5:42 p.m.

I think here's the questions -

  1. Are the water deals fair?

From what I understand many of the water agreements regarding CO River water go way back. So I think the answer to that depends on how long ancient deals and agreements hold true. Do we have to abide by deals and negotiations that are roughly 100 years old? I don't know, I guess they should but at some point can you overthrow old deals because conditions have changed so much?

  1. Is providing cheap water to acgriculture economically advantaeous for CA?
    I think the answer to that question is clearly no. Whatever economic benefits CA gets from agriculture are far outweighted by the economic costs of the agriculture industry's vast of water and vast use of illegal immigrant labor.

  2. Is maintaining agriculture in CA needed for reasons other than economic? That's a little bit harder to answer than #2. Having a strong domestic agriculture industry may be important for safety reasons (easier to maintain health standards) and for national defense reasons (own source of food could be important in a war).


Don Bauder June 25, 2012 @ 7:40 p.m.

Many if not most economists might say that too much state water is diverted to agriculture. On the other hand, one could argue that real estate development is getting too much water. That is certainly true in San Diego, which must find industries other than real estate to propel the economy. Best, don bauder


JohnMackey June 24, 2012 @ 5:53 a.m.

The Salton Sea (400 Square-Miles) is the repository of 100 years of agricultural run-off, including DDT. Should the 'Sea' dry-up, Imperial & Coachella Valleys will become toxic every time the wind blows. As for Agriculture, I've always thought it was both cotton and vegetables. Cotton takes lots of water to grow, so, we can expect that will be first to go. We know we need to invite Israeli professors to lecture farmers on drip-irrigation. The current crop of farmers there don't like me saying this, but, the handwriting is on the wall.


Don Bauder June 24, 2012 @ 7:44 a.m.

Conservation by Imperial farmers could definitely be improved. This is one of the variables in the tapestry. Best, don bauder


Twister Aug. 10, 2012 @ 10:21 p.m.

The bottom-line is the ratio of supply to DEMAND. That's VERY different from NEED.

Therein lies the solution, but even that has its limits. Technology cannot save you if you persist in living in dreamland.


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