To appreciate the epic scale on which the Imperial Irrigation District has operated for the past 110 years, it must be known that attempts to divert the mighty Colorado River into a network of canals was years in the making.
The men who would undertake the challenge — recognizable names like C.R. Rockwood, Dr. W.T. Heffernan, A.H. Heber, L.M. Holt, and others — would do so under the aegis of the California Development Co., incorporated in 1896.
Their vision of turning the Valley’s vast sunbaked desert into a western Nile Delta through the same complex system of irrigation canals the Egyptians used to reclaim and farm the North African desert for some 5,000 years was a lofty goal indeed.
Yet work began in April 1900 to wrest control of the Colorado, using the Alamo River as the primary conveyance of water (the Alamo Canal) to the Valley’s hardscrabble “fields.”
Fast forward to June 1901, and the first drops of water through a manmade channel kissed the bone-dry Imperial Valley earth in what was considered the California Development Co.’s first water delivery to farm fields, as they were.
Today, the canal is the iconic symbol of the Imperial Valley in many ways. As the Imperial Irrigation District celebrates its 110th-year anniversary on Sunday, July 25, the concrete-lined, modernized, and rebuilt spine of the district’s canal system — the All-American Canal — is every bit as symbolic today of “man’s quest for fire” as it was in 1928, when the Boulder Canyon Project Act authorized its construction using horse-powered Fresno scrapers to chew through the desert’s hardpacked dirt.
The All-American Canal is the IID’s enduring legacy and lifeline, the main artery that allows the heart of the Colorado River to bring life to the organs and limbs of the Valley’s 500,000 acres of farm fields.
What the IID’s founders envisioned for the agency or how long they expected it to last is difficult to say, yet the district honors its 110 years in an enviable position as the nation’s largest irrigation district and the third-largest public power provider in California.
IID delivers water to not only a half million acres of arable land in an arid desert, but to 10 cities and communities that treat the water for home and commercial consumption. It also provides electricity to more than 155,000 customers in the Imperial and Coachella valleys at extremely low rates.
The agency is in good shape. It is financially sound and holds the largest and most secure federal entitlement of Colorado River water.
Yet its journey has been fraught with countless challenges on the way to helping turn a parched piece of earth into a fertile oasis, and the Imperial Irrigation District is facing difficult hurdles in key areas moving forward, such as concerns at Lake Mead, the ever-present problems of saving the Salton Sea, and ongoing challenges to its water rights, one of which IID officials fear could allow outside parties to wrest control of its lifeblood, Assembly Bill 1021.
In the Beginning …
The district’s roots are in the wreckage of an effort to develop an irrigation system in the Colorado Desert, which includes the Imperial and Coachella valleys. IID was formed in 1911 to pick up the pieces of the California Development Co., which was diverting water from the Colorado River through Mexico to irrigate mostly just the southern end of the Imperial Valley.
The California Development Co. went bust trying to repair damages wrought by the winter flood of 1905, in which the Imperial Canal overflowed, causing the Colorado River to flow uncontrollably into the Salton Sink for two years, forming the Salton Sea as it’s known today.
Years later, when the Boulder Canyon Project Act cleared the way for the All-American Canal’s construction, an essential component to bringing water to both the growing Imperial Valley and neighboring Coachella Valley, the IID intended to repay its share of construction costs by generating power from the rushing water on the canal.
Ultimately, Congress wanted to see IID and the nascent Coachella Valley Water District merge, yet an imbalance in financial and other concerns caused the areas to resist such efforts.
As a result, the federal government compelled IID and Coachella to determine their water and power rights, and the 1934 compact was born.
Under the agreement, IID would get priority water rights and a 99-year power lease with the Coachella Valley Water District in exchange for 8 percent of the net proceeds. That agreement ends in 2033, leaving the prospect of providing electric service in that area in question.
State Assembly Bill 1021 would push the IID to settle that question, according to its author, Assembly member Chad Mayes, I-Rancho Mirage.
AB 1021: IID’s Biggest Challenge Yet?
AB 1021 would add a non-voting seat representing energy ratepayers in southeastern Riverside County to the IID Board of Directors, whose five members are elected by voters in the district’s water service area.
This isn’t the first time IID has experienced Mayes’ long reach into the Imperial Valley. The district successfully defended itself against an earlier challenge to its autonomy when Mayes authored Assembly Bill 854 that sought to add six Riverside County-based voting seats to the IID board. That bill was parked for two years and died in committee.
“In 2033, the compromise agreement is going to come to an end. Between now and then we need to establish boundaries of this public power authority. Imperial County’s water rights need to be secure in perpetuity, and at the same time the folks in Coachella Valley need to be able to vote for a representative on their public power authority,” Mayes said in a recent interview with the Calexico Chronicle.
AB 1021 was approved almost unanimously by the Assembly and is now in the state Senate, but Mayes continues to add amendments. The latest version moved the deadline from July 2023 to July 2022 for a joint study by Imperial and Riverside County’s Local Area Formation Commissions on options for alternative governance structures that provide for proportional representation for the IID board, and options for providing electricity in the IID’s jurisdiction in Riverside County.
Mayes also added an urgency clause, which reads, “Due to the extreme conditions the state is facing regarding water and energy, it is necessary for the Imperial Irrigation District to address these issues affecting customers within their service area as soon as possible.”
“When 2033 ends, we still have a service territory up there. That’s still our service area. If it’s not about the water, why is he making those amendments?” IID Division 3 Director and board President Jim Hanks said.
The ending to this chapter has yet to be written, while at least one other run at the district’s historical stewardship of the water has been resolved … for now.
Abatti’s lawsuit sought to overturn a previous state appellate court ruling that asserts IID is the “sole owner” of water rights in the Valley and farmers are entitled to “water service,” and nothing more, by petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
Late last month, the Supreme Court denied Abatti’s petition, effectively ending years of costly challenges and acrimony among both sides.
Abatti is one of the Valley’s largest landowners who has long maintained, along with a healthy group of farming friends, that the Valley’s growers had “the property right” to the IID’s entitlement.
IID President Hanks said he served with Abatti on the board, and considered him a friend, but this was one issue on which they disagreed.
“They have a right to use the water, they have a right to the profit that the water generates, but they don’t have the right to sell the water, because they don’t own the water,” he said.
Yet nature can pose a pretty big threat to the IID as well. Drought conditions on the Colorado River and a shrinking Salton Sea with no source of water or natural inlet or outlet to replenish it are both additional areas of concern for the future of the 110-year-old agency.
Lake Mead: A Shrinking Reservoir
Lake Mead, which holds Colorado River water allocated to the Imperial Irrigation District and other western Lower Colorado River Basin states water users, is at record low levels due to ongoing drought conditions in the west that will only exacerbate in the coming years.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s latest projections indicate a high likelihood of a first-ever shortage condition in the Lower Basin in 2022.
If Lake Mead’s projected elevation at the end of the 2021 is at or below 1,075 feet, the reservoir would operate in a shortage condition in 2022, which would immediately impact Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. Lake Mead’s water level is currently at 1,067 feet, with just over four months remaining.
“It’s a big deal,” IID Water Manager Tina Shields said in a recent interview. “The future hydrology is very concerning, and it’s not looking good. Once the lake starts declining, it starts to crash quickly at a point.”
The IID’s senior water rights make it immune to planned water cuts, but they don’t cushion the Valley’s growers if the district uses more water than it is allocated during a drought. If there is an inadvertent overrun before the end of the year, the Bureau of Reclamation can shut off the tap, President Hanks said.
“When you have a shortage on the Colorado River, no storage to draw on, no overrun capability, everything gets tighter,” he said.
There is a persistent fear in the Imperial Valley that outside interests want to get their hands on IID’s water. The 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement transfers of some of that water to San Diego and Los Angeles is still a sore subject among Valley landowners and growers.
IID is in talks with other water users for the 2026 Intentionally Created Surplus program, which would allow Lower Basin states to store some of their water allocation in Lake Mead if they manage to conserve an equivalent amount of that water. The idea is to bolster Lake Mead’s water level and hopefully blunt the effects of a shortage declaration. IID officials make no secret that they would like the ability to store some of the district’s unused water.
“We’ve always talked about having access to more storage. We have lots of storage potential down here, but they have to let us do it. That means modifying the rules,” Shields said.
“In the past, IID was a target for fixing California’s problems” when water became scarce, Shields said, and as a result, she added, “I think the Salton Sea continues to be a concern.”
Salton Sea: Cyclical Lake Looks for Rebirth
The problematic Salton Sea, which has been shrinking and increasing in its salinity for over two decades, took a turn for the worse in January 2018 with the transfer of large amounts of water to San Diego.
The Salton Sea has several things working against it, such as a lack of natural inlets or outlets to replenish the former sink, and water conservation efforts which reduce the amount of farm-water runoff which feeds the sea.
Yet 2020 and 2021 were a good couple years for the sea, and despite the problems there was some positive developments.
More than $3 million were allocated for the Salton Sea and New River in a 2022 House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee bill.
Salton Sea is literally sitting on a hotbed of untapped geothermal resources beneath its southeastern footprint in what the U.S. Geological Survey refers to as the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area, where at least a few thousand megawatts of potential power are ready to be unearthed.
While those lithium developments are good news, they don’t affect the water in the Salton Sea, which poses an ever-increasing public health risk as sea levels recede, leaving behind fine dust that gets airborne easily and causes a host of respiratory problems in what can be a swirling microclimate of shifting winds on the southern end.
The Imperial County Air Pollution Control District slapped the IID and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with notices of violation in 2020 alleging that they have not done enough to suppress dust at the 112-acre Red Hill Bay project. The IID is the landowner, and Fish and Wildlife is the project operator. A legal fight is under way over the violation.
Epilogue: Like the Cycle of the Sea, IID Rolls with Tide
The Imperial Irrigation District and Imperial Valley residents are in a tough spot with the Salton Sea. It’s a majestic piece of the Valley’s history that people want to see restored and made whole, despite the common perception that is a manmade mistake.
In reality, this entire region was once the underwater playground of the Sea of Cortez, and Native American tribes occupied the Salton Sink circa 10,000 B.C.
In 700 A.D., Lake Cahuilla rose from the overflow of a silt-blocked Colorado River, which broke loose and filled the Salton Sink.
Historically, in some way, shape or form, that cycle of wet and dry has continued to our present course — four times, by historians’ count.
It’s a safe bet that the IID board and staff will have their hands full going forward. Colorado River hydrology projections are dire, and urban areas continue to grow.
“It hasn’t been easy for 110 years. It’s still not easy,” IID President Hanks said. “The largest threat to IID is legislation. That’s why it’s critical when directors come on, they get informed to understand the water rights and their responsibilities as a trustee.”