The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District is eyeing the water supplies diverted to farmers
Los Angeles area's bid to buy water
supplies has far-reaching implications
By Case Peterson
BRAWLEY, Calif. The water moves tranquilly
across the desert floor in a grid of earthen canals,
cutting through spiny stands of ocotillo and sage on its
way to the lush green fields of the Imperial Valley.
For moe than eight decades, the Colorado River
has irrigated this aid land, bringing forth a cornucopia
of grains, fruits and vegetables more than
$780 million worth last year.
But scarcely 100 miles away, across the stony Valle-
cito Mountains, the sprawling coastal cities of South-
er California have turned a covetous eye on the Impe-
rial Valley's brimming canals.
Facing a cutback in allocations from the Colorado
River and stymied in their efforts to import more
water from the north, the cities are looking for supplies
from somewhere else and the Imperial Valley is.
There is a new battle brewing over water in Califor-
nia, where the courses of rivers are as likely to be set
by politics and power as by nature. But this time, the
water warriors have.introduced a novel concept in
Western water politics. It's called the free market.
There is a new battle brewing over water in
California, where the courses of rivers are as
likely to be set by politics and power as by na-
ture. But this time, the water warriors have in-
troduced a novel concept in Western water
politics. It's called the free market.
In a startling divergenee from the past that could
have profound implication, the Los Angesbased
Metropolitan Water District is not seeking to wrest the
Imperial Valley's water from it in court. It wants to
buy some of it.
The water district is willing to pay more than 10
times the oin rate for the water, which would be
dived into its aqueduct from the Colordo instead
of being shipped to the valley's lettuce and alfalfa
The proposal is billed as a conservation measure.
The water district says it is only interested in the
water that can be saved by lining the Imperial Irriga-
tion District's earthen canals and installing other wa-
Engineer say they believe that such equipment
could salvage millions of gallon of water a year -
enough to make up for the Colorado River allotment
that Southern California will lose when deliveries to
Arizona increase next year.
But promoters and detractors alike say that the
Imperial Valley proposal goes to the heart of water
policy throughout the arid West, where water has long
been regarded as an inalienable right rather than as a
commodity to be bought and sold.
An agreement could set the stage for more "water
trading" between agricultural and urban interests in
other booing Sun Belt states, where as much s 90
percent of available water now goes to irrigate crops.
In the long run, according to some experts, farmers
in the fertile deserts of California and Arizona might
find it more profitable to "farm" their water than to
till the lad.
The thought already has occurred to the Metropoli-
tan Water District, which broken water to 12 water
districts and 14 cities, including Los Angeles.
"Right now, with farming so bad, a lot of farmers
would be willing to talk to us," said Carl Boronkay, the
water district's general manager. "Ultimately, it may
come to this. I feel we ought to make use of the
available water first, and we can do that with conserva-
tion facilities. At some future date, we can consider
whether to pay people not to farm."
The notion is no less enticing to some farmers.
"Maybe we can make a deal on drought insurance
(or dry years," said John Benson, an Imperial Valley
grower who sits on the board of the irrigation district.
"At $500 an acre-foot, we could give the money to
farmers around here and staA drying up crops."
But the proposal raises troubling questions as well.
r, : Like most farmers in California's arid valleys, growers
in the Imperial Irrigation District owe their existence
and their cheap water to the federal government.
Farmers pay $9 an acre-foot for water, enough to
flood an acre of land to a depth of one foot. At that
rate,. Imperial owners are paying nearly twice the av-
erage for federal water in the state's central valley, but
the price is still less than the cost of operating and
maintaining the elaborate system of dams, canals and
The Metropolitan Water District is willing to pay
upwards of $100 an acre-foot for the same water, prob-
ably more in a dry year.
What that adds up to is a lucrative deal for the
farmer, which in the irrigated West is as likely to be a
sprawling corporate operation as a stereotypical family
Even the most ardent supporters of free-market
water ae swallowing hard over that prospect, includ-
ing some conservationists who think that water sales
are otherwise a dandy idea that could ease the pressure
for more expensive and environmentally damaging wa-
Gary Stone, an attorney for the Paron Corp., an
engineering firm that has helped map the strategy for
the water swap, said the Imperial proposal appears
"We've had a number of water experts and legal
experts look into it," he said. "This is not a historical
methodology in dealing with water, but we've talked
with federal officials and we think it would stand any
Stone's analysis, however, is limited to the proposal
for selling conserved water.
"No part of this proposal entails paying farmers
not to farm," he said.
Since the 'days of the New Deal, federal irrigation
water has been priced according to the farmers' ability
to pay, so long as the water was being put to beneficial
use. The result virtually endless repayment periods
at little or no interest has been justified as necessary
to protect the farm economy of the.West and preserve
an important food supply for the nation.
Nobody, it seems, anticipated the water being sent
off to sprinkle golf courses in La Jolla.
The Imperial Valley, however, is not the only agri-
cultural area investigating the water market. The
Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley,
under court order to find a solution to the problem of
its contaminated drainage water, is alsa considering
selling water as a way of fimcing a cleanup program.
Wetlands growers envision a series of desalting
plants, costing hundred of millions of dollars, which
would cleans drainage water of accumulated salt$,
toxic selenium and agricultural chemicals. The recy-
cled water would then be shipped south through the
California Aqueduct, where it presumably would fetch
a price high enough to finance the desalting plnts
Alternatively, the farmers could reuse the water on
their fields and sell their allotment of incoming irriga-
That proposal raises another set of knotty ques-
tions, not the least of which is what will prevent farm-
ers in marginally productive areas from simply electing
to sell their water at an eye-popping profit.
"Some economists argue that even if that does hap-
pen, it would be better fcr everyone," said Hal Candee,
an attorney fo the Natural Resources Defense Council
in San Francisco. "It would encourage farmers not to
irrigate land that shouldn't be irrigated."