LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – The law of the River– the Colorado River, that is – says the farmers come first. That’s how they see it in California, in the Imperial Valley, where farming is big business.
Take Andrew Leimgruber of Holtville, Calif., a few hundred miles from the Mexico border.
Leimgruber is a fourth-generation farmer who believes the water rights bestowed unto the farmers in the 1922 accord between California, and the other six states – including Nevada – that rely on Colorado River water to live. That water right established a system putting the farmers at the top of the list.
“If you look at our priority system, it was based on first in line, first in use,” Leimgruber said.
Since the 1922 agreement expired earlier this year, California has refused to sign an agreement with the six other so-called “basin states.” In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation has proposed an emergency plan for dividing Colorado River water unless the states are able to ink a new deal with each other.
“The federal government and the Bureau of Reclamation have done us all a disservice,” Leimgruber said. “The reservoirs were full in 2002. They’ve known for 15 years that we’ve been taking more than what’s been going in. And unfortunately, there wasn’t a willingness to put in the cuts and to lower the usage when it could have not been an emergency.”
Leimbgruber and farmers in his region plant every vegetable you can think of during the winter months – a variety of lettuces, cauliflower, broccoli, celery and others. But it’s alfalfa – that leafy green vegetable that provides cows the protein they need to ultimately translate into steak, cheese, and milk – that gets all the attention.
“In reality, the majority of alfalfa, especially what’s grown here in Imperial Valley, is what makes California the number one dairy-producing state in the nation,” Leimgruber said.
He is aware that Southern Nevadans are critical of the amount of water spent to grow alfalfa. By way of comparison, an eight-minute shower consumes approximately 20 gallons of water. The alfalfa that winds up being fed to cows as one bail of hay drinks up to 650 gallons.
Leimgruber says that’s a “beneficial use” of Colorado River Water Supply, referring to an age-old doctrine of California water rights, which limits water use to what’s “reasonably required,” according to Art. X Sec. 2 of the CA State Constitution.
But Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River Resources for the Metropolitan Water District – which provides water to 19 million Southern Californians says the definition of basic use has changed, and alfalfa may no longer be considered as such.
“Unfettered growing of alfalfa in the desert might not be a beneficial use,” Hasencamp said.
Leimgruber said the market dictates what the farmers grow, and the American – and international – customers demand alfalfa because of the world’s appetite for meat, chicken, and steak.
“It’s not a beneficial use for me to plant thousands of acres of quinoa if there’s no market for it,” Leimgruber said.
If the farmers are not allowed to use the Colorado River to grow alfalfa, they might not be able to stay in business. Or at least, that’s the party line from Imperial Irrigation District spokesman Robert Schettler.
Part of Schettler’s job is to speak on behalf of the district, and another part is, on occasion, to write its mission statement. He says the uncertainty with regard to water usage is making things in the Imperial Valley tense.
“It’s got a lot of people on edge,” Schettler said. Schettler said one major priority it to protect the river, and another is to defend the farmers and their right to use the water to which they have long been entitled.
“And we have that right,” Schettler said.
Some regions of the Imperial Valley are opting to take the government up on its offer to let certain fertile fields go unplanted, an agricultural technique known as fallowing. The government incentives can pay farmers a lot of money – totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
But critics point out that fallowing can also lead to economic failure in the regions that try it because fewer crops mean fewer jobs and less money in the local economy.
“For us, that’s the F-word in the valley, fallowing,” Schettler said.
Fallowing is on the list of options, though, especially considering the amount of effort – and money – farmers like Leimgruber have had to spend in order to conserve water.
Leimgruber says Imperial Valley farmers have spent some half a billion dollars on conversion systems, changing the orientation of their fields, lining dirt ditches with cement, and creating reservoirs to catch the water that would otherwise be lost. Those measures and other conservation efforts have helped save just under a million acre-feet of water per year, which is roughly enough water to service 2.5 million homes.
“We have drip systems, sprinkler systems, tail water recovery system,” Leimgruber said. “There’s a lot of different ways that we’re conserving on the farm side. Then, as well, as we’re conserving water on the system side.”