That’s a lot like what is unfolding in the David and Goliath battle over Colorado River water in the Southern California desert. For years the metropolitan water purveyors for the sprawling cities of Southern California have been taking more than their share of Colorado River water. They knew at some point that they’d be forced to live within their means. When that day began drawing near, they figured they’d just sash shay into the poor, political impotent agricultural valleys of Palo Verde and Imperial and take Colorado River water from the farms and small cities.
The mousetrap went off when the Imperial Valley Irrigation District voted 3-2 in mid-December in saying no thanks to the latest proposal to sell water to San Diego for a pittance. How dare David let go that slingshot!
The rejection vote came within days of a federal government-imposed deadline of Dec. 31, 2002 when "California" had to show that it had in place agreements to live within the 4.4 million acre-feet annual Colorado River allotment. To set the record straight, California cities have been taking that excess Colorado River — not the farmers who have long been living within their long-held water rights.
The most economically viable places for cities to find replacement water for what they had swiping from the Colorado are from Imperial and Palo Verde valley irrigation districts.
Palo Verde Irrigation District (PVID) farmers have struck a deal with the Metropolitan District of Southern California. MWD is ballyhooing that deal, throwing it up to IID, which is balking at a similar pact. However, the PVID will only be done if landowners individually sign up for a pact that will force them to idle from 7 up to almost 30 percent of their farms annually over the next 35 years to sell Colorado River water to Southern California. It is not a done deal at this point.
It is a bit more complicated with IID. Unlike Palo Verde where farmers control the water, cities and elected officials are involved in IID. Plus the money offered for the water will be filtered down through more entities than just farmers. And there is the environmental freak of nature called the Salton Sea that has become a political nightmare muddling the IID picture even more.
The Southern California urban political power brokers were sent packing by the audacious folks of Imperial Valley with that 3-2 vote, but make no mistake, the water from the Palo Verde and Imperial will eventually flow north. The powerful MWD and other Southland water agencies cannot afford to tell their constituents they’ll not be able to fill their swimming pools.
The only question is at what price? Imperial and Palo Verde are holding out for the best deal they can get. It’s a high stakes five-card stud poker game with one side rolling in cash and the other holding a facedown ace. The people of those two valleys own the water and for now no song and dance man is taking it away.