April 8, 2012

Water drives area's politics


Water has always been the driving political issue in Imperial Valley, fueled by fears that 19 million people living on Southern California's coast will suck it dry. Los Angeles dealt that fate to Owens Valley farmers almost a century ago, as portrayed in Roman Polanski's film “Chinatown.”

Imperial Valley, with only 175,000 people — but a half-million acres of productive farms — gets nearly 20 percent of the Colorado River's flow, which would be enough for more than 6 million homes. It gets more than any of the seven Western U.S. states and northern Mexico, which also rely on the 1,450-mile waterway. Early settlers were first to claim the water, and under Western water law, farmers can keep it as long as they can demonstrate it is put to good use.

Imperial Valley got a jolt in 1984 when a state panel ruled farmers were wasting water, forcing the sale of a slice of its share to cities. The Bass family, Texas oil billionaires, soon became the largest landowners in an ill-fated attempt to sell even more water to cities.

Farmer Jack Vessey joined other big farmers to campaign against a 2003 agreement under which Imperial Valley sold water to San Diego in the nation's largest farm-to-city transfer.

Mike Morgan is their leader. Morgan has refused to cut his hair until his concerns are addressed. Now, eight years later, the 64-year-old's gray and strawberry blond ponytail stretches down his back.

The farmers' main target is the Imperial Irrigation District, which bought the canal system from the region's bankrupted pioneers in 1911 and manages its water rights. The government agency employs 1,300 people, ranging from “zanjeros” who open and close 6,000 metal canal gates to meter readers at its electric utility. To critics, the agency is a misguided bureaucracy.

Non-farmers now control the agency's five-member elected board, a shift welcomed by some who fear large landowners might squander the region's most precious resource.

Vessey disagrees: “It makes me nervous when a jeweler in El Centro has control over that water.”