El Centro fields
Agricultural fields surround El Centro in Imperial County, east of San Diego. Aerial photo courtesy UC Riverside

A modest proposal for western water: Turn off the spigot to the Imperial Valley and let the farms go fallow. In return, provide a water future for Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.

Sure, there would be a price to pay. California’s Imperial Valley, which sits in the southeastern corner of the state, bordered by Arizona and Mexico, produces alfalfa, lettuce, corn and sugar beets, among other crops. It’s home to more than 300,000 head of cattle. Cutting off the water would end all of that, along with the livelihoods of the farmers and ranchers who produce it and the communities that depend on it.

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But let’s face it, the whole valley defies nature. It’s a desert that became an agricultural area when the All-American Canal was built just over 100 years ago. That canal, an 80-mile long ditch that draws water off the Colorado River before it can reach its natural destination in Mexico, irrigates fields that would otherwise be barren in a valley where summer temperatures regularly top 100 degrees and annual rainfall is about 2 inches. 

No canal, no farms. 

How could we sacrifice farms to support cities? There’s plenty of precedent for that. The open theft of the water from the Owens Valley in the early 1900s is a good example, when William Mulholland and his associates bought up land to secure the water rights that went with it. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power collected those rights, diverted the Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct and made America’s second-largest city possible. 

Yes, the Owens Valley was denied its future as a breadbasket, but we got L.A. in return.

If fallowing the Imperial Valley would solve the water problems of the West — as the Owens Valley solved them for Los Angeles — why not?

And, by the way, shutting off Imperial’s water would come close to solving the region’s problems in one fell swoop. There is a fierce debate underway over how to divide the declining waters of the Colorado River. Seven states, two national governments and more than two dozen Native American tribes depend on the Colorado River for water, and its riches are diminishing as climate change makes droughts more severe. The river is reliably producing between 2.5 and 3 million acre-feet of less water each year than what those entities are using. 

Something has to give.

Back to the Imperial Valley. The Imperial Irrigation District, which manages water for the valley, gets 2.6 million acre-feet of water every year from the Colorado. The Metropolitan Water District, which delivers water to Southern California, draws less than half as much off the Colorado as Imperial does.

To review: The Colorado River is short by as much as 3 million acre-feet a year. The Imperial Valley alone draws 2.6 million acre-feet from it. Do the math.

They’ve heard this in the valley before. “We are a big target because we have a lot of water,” said Robert Schettler, a spokesperson for the Imperial Irrigation District. “But it’s what we’re doing with it that’s important.” 

OK, so it’s not really a serious proposal. No one is seriously suggesting that the government shut down all farming in the Imperial Valley. 

As Schettler and others note, it would be catastrophic to the farmers who have built lives there, to the workers who depend on that industry (1 in 6 valley residents) and to the Salton Sea, whose modern life began with an irrigation overflow in 1905 and which only exists today because of runoff from the farms. Allowing the desert lake to dry up would unleash toxic dust on a largely low-income, Latino population. 

What’s more, the district has offered to cut 250,000 acre-feet of water per year for four years as part of the Colorado River talks. That’s a contribution of 1 million acre-feet to the larger goal.

So it’s not really right or realistic to shut down the valley or to make light of the efforts it’s making. But the state of the Imperial Valley is a reminder that water shortages in California are not chiefly the result of a growing population. It’s agriculture, far more than cities, that chews through water.

Another comparison: Historically, Los Angeles’ main source of water has been the Owens River. In years with decent rain, Los Angeles draws about 300,000 acre-feet from it. That’s about 12% of what the Imperial Valley uses. All users in Los Angeles combined — using all sources combined — go through about 20% of what the Imperial Valley consumes.

That’s fairly typical in California. Statewide, of the water used for homes and businesses, 80% goes to agriculture

Critics who complain that population growth is responsible for water shortages aren’t exactly wrong — more people obviously consume more water — but they’re missing the point. City residents, especially those in apartments, use negligible amounts of water. It’s crops that drink deeply. In fact, some residential development, if it encroaches on farmland, actually can reduce water usage.

It’s also true that farms matter. California helps feed the world, and it should continue to do so. The Imperial Valley contributes mightily to that mission. 

Given that the Imperial Valley will remain as farmland — and recognizing that Arizona, Nevada and others have a legitimate claim to Colorado River water, too — then where do we make the cuts? Jeff Kightlinger, former head of the Metropolitan Water District, considered that question recently (as he for decades), and noted that significant reductions to a few agricultural areas — Imperial, yes, but also Palo Verde and Yuma, Arizona, among others — might be ameliorated by state land purchases of farms that were fallowed, along with job training and relocation for farmworkers. Throw in some aggressive conservation measures and some increased storage, and the goal of reducing consumption by nearly 3 million acre-feet a year suddenly seems achievable.

“You could cobble it together,” Kightlinger said. It might require emergency action by Gov. Gavin Newsom, but, after all, “We’re close to an emergency.”

He’s right about that, too. Yes, this has been a banner year for rain and snow, but that just cuts the annual water deficit. Generations of accumulated debt — depleted groundwater, exhausted watersheds — pose the real problem, and it’s growing. One year of relief can’t make up for decades of depletion. 

There’s lots of pain coming as California and the rest of the West adjust water usage to water supply. It’s going to require conservation, recycling, innovative pricing, increased storage and better ways to capture rain in wet years. 

It’s also going to mean less water — a lot less water — for farms.

Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics. He teaches at UCLA and founded Blueprint magazine. The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.