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Saturday, December 10, 2016

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

BRAWLEY, California — Thomas Cox, a third-generation Imperial Valley farmer, is driving his pickup along the gravel roads that separate large fields of lettuce, broccoli, onions and wheat.

The discussion turns, as it often does in the Imperial Valley, to water. “Without water,” said Cox, 27, “our ground would be useless.”

But with copious amounts of water, the Cox family and others have turned half a million acres of desert into one of the most bountiful farming regions in the world — a fact unchanged by the drought gripping much of California.

While other areas — including the farm belt of the Central Valley — face immediate supply cutbacks, the Imperial Valley continues to have all the water it can use.

The valley is not connected to the State Water Project, which delivers water from Northern California. Its water comes directly from the Colorado River, which has continued allocations.

The valley’s share is ensured by agreements among the seven states that depend on the river, starting with the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

In water law, one rule is supreme: “First in time, first in right.”

As a result, Imperial County, with a population of 175,000, gets 3.1 million acre-feet of water a year. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, serving 19 million people, gets about 1.1 million acre-feet.

More than a century ago, the pioneer farmers of the Imperial Valley — many of them immigrants from Asia and Europe attracted by cheap land — braved blistering summer temperatures and barren ground. Through grit and ingenuity, they pulled water from the Colorado River years before the thirsty communities of coastal California looked eastward.

The drought is largely a rumor here, but one with ominous overtones: that outside forces with political clout might try to force the valley to sell some of its water, as was done a decade ago, or even try to take a portion.

“We recognize we live in an area that is blessed to have strong, senior rights on the Colorado River,” said Linsey Dale, executive director of the county Farm Bureau. “We are aware that other areas are desperate for the water we have.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for conservation has not prompted much official action here, but it has been much discussed.

“Obviously it makes us rally around our water rights more than usual,” said Tina Anderholt Shields, Colorado River resources manager for the Imperial Irrigation District.

Even if the federal agency that manages the Colorado River is forced to impose drought rules already adopted by the seven states, Arizona and Nevada would see their allocations cut before any reduction would be imposed on the Imperial Irrigation District.

Farming is the foundation of the valley’s economy. Only 3 percent of the valley’s water allocation is for residential use.