EL CENTRO, CALIF. — EL CENTRO, Calif. - Inch by inch, the life's blood of a large swath of the United States - Colorado River water - seeped across the desert. Or rather, across the desert that is now Mike Cox's cotton field.
For Cox, circling the field in his pickup truck to check on the water's progress, soaking his cotton is a routine procedure. Every 10 days during the summer, he uses 7.8 million gallons of water diverted by canals from the Colorado River to irrigate the 70-acre field, just a fraction of the 1,000 acres he farms in California's Imperial Valley.
But for the rest of the Southwest, Cox's routine watering represents something more significant. In this single irrigation of a tiny corner of a broad farming plain, Cox used about as much water as 50 households use in a year - as much as all their showering, toilet-flushing and dish-washing put together.
This is the explosive equation at the heart of the battle that, after gripping the Southwest for years, is now nearing a climax.
With the cities of the western Sun Belt booming, much of the water from the Colorado River, the main water source in a parched region, continues to be used by only a few hundred farmers in the Imperial Valley along the Mexican border.
The valley won the right to the water more than 100 years ago and has guarded it ever since. But in a historic shift, the Southwest is now on the verge of a landmark transfer of Colorado water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego.
The deal, which negotiators hope to seal by next month but which could still collapse, might help resolve a conflict that has been building for a century.
The war over Colorado water has pitted cities against farmers, fomented tensions among seven states, and dominated the attention of Native American tribes, environmentalists, federal officials and Mexico. The water wars have transformed a whole corner of the country, from the construction of vast cities on arid plains to the accidental creation of a sea in the middle of the desert.
For the 25 million Americans who rely on the river as it flows 1,400 miles from the snowpacks of the Rocky Mountains to its delta across the Mexican border, the outcome of the negotiations is nothing less than a matter of their region's survival.
"The big picture is that there are more rights to water from the Colorado than there is reliable water in the river," said Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona. "We have a train wreck ahead of us."
Under the deal, San Diego would pay the Imperial Valley $2.5 billion over 45 years to receive about 7 percent of the valley's share, water made available by more efficient irrigation. The water would compensate for the cutback California faces because of higher usage in Arizona, which now stores river water underground, leaving less for its western neighbor.
The deal, which also includes several smaller transfers within California, looks like a win-win arrangement. San Diego would get a reliable new source of water, while the Imperial Irrigation District would be able to sell water to San Diego at a rate 16 times what its own farmers pay.
But in the kind of twist so common to the water wars, a possible deal-breaker arose last year. Conserving water on Imperial farms, it turns out, would doom the Salton Sea, the giant lake in the middle of the desert at the valley's edge, imperiling millions of birds for which it is a key stop on the Pacific flyway.
Last week, amid the hoopla of the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis, negotiators spent long days in Sacramento seeking a way to split the cost of protecting the sea and still salvage the transfer.
It is a surreal situation, with all the water machinations of the classic film Chinatown: Because of water being pumped into the Arizona sand, farmers in the California desert are being urged to sell water to a port city but are being held up by the danger of causing a landlocked sea to vanish from the Earth.
A century of change
It seemed simpler when farmer Cox's predecessors in the valley won rights to the water more than 100 years ago. Phoenix was a desert town of 5,000, San Diego a fledgling port city of 17,000 and the river water was the farmers' for the taking.
One century later, the farmers are not about to give up the water easily, no matter how many Beverly Hills lawns or Las Vegas casino gardens need to be kept a luscious green.
"It does take a lot of water, but I get a lot of production out of it," said Cox, 52, as he looked down his cotton furrows to monitor the water, which is drawn from an irrigation ditch by small siphon hoses and flows by gravity across the slightly slanted field. "Why is it OK for [cities] to use it in their fountains and spray it on their sidewalks? I think I have the right to use it for productive purposes."
But to many in the Southwest, such farmers' claims represent an entitlement the region can no longer afford. Phoenix, which has grown 75 percent in 30 years to 1.4 million people, will soon surpass Philadelphia as the fifth-largest U.S. city; Las Vegas, a railroad town of 5,000 in 1930, now has a metropolitan area population of 1.5 million.
This boom has caused the most problems for California, which uses more Colorado water than any other state. For years, California has taken more than its allocated share of the river because other states haven't used their full amount.
Now, with the Southwest growing fast and suffering a long drought, there's less extra water to go around, and California is under strict orders from the federal government to cut back.
The pressure on California is driven most by Arizona, which profoundly altered the region's water equation with the construction, in the 1980s, of a 336-mile aqueduct to carry Colorado water over the mountains and desert as far as Tucson.
This has allowed Arizona to claim its full share of river water, even though it doesn't actually use the full amount. Instead - in a tactic viewed as being unfair by some, brilliant by others - it pumps surplus water into the ground, reserving it for future use and thereby leaving no surplus for California.
Forcing California to cut back to its allocated share of the river would hit hardest in Southern California's sprawling cities, which have the legal right to far less than the state's farms, and therefore have been relying heavily on the leftover water.
That's where the deal comes in. By transferring Imperial water to San Diego, California can gradually wean itself from excessive use of the river.
Imperial Valley leaders were close to signing on to the transfer late last year when they balked, worried that the valley would be liable for the cost of restoring the Salton Sea, estimated to be as much as $2 billion. The 15-by-35-mile sea, created when floodwaters on the Colorado broke an early canal to the Imperial Valley in 1905, depends on runoff from valley farms as its main water source.
Reducing runoff would rapidly shrink the sea, threatening the birds that, deprived of other wetlands, now rely on it.
As a penalty for pulling out of the deal, Interior Department Secretary Gale A. Norton cut the valley's river allocation by 10 percent last winter, saying that farmers were wasting water.
It was a major step: The Interior Department, which has the authority to withhold water if it's not put to "reasonable and beneficial use," had rarely invoked the right before. The valley sued in protest.
Unlike the backroom water deals in Chinatown, dealing over the transfer has played out in public view. In a region where residents face rising water bills and threats of rationing, water politics is front-page news.
If a deal is reached, it could be the blueprint for future transfers from farms to ever-thirstier cities, possibly spelling the decline of agriculture in the region.
The transfer is "a model for how historic distrust between urban and agricultural water interests can be overcome," said Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.
But if the deal falls through and Imperial farmers are forced to give up water anyway, they say they'll defend their century-old rights to the end.
"If we have to fight them in the Supreme Court, that's what we'll do," said John Pierre Menvielle, a third-generation farmer who is running for the Imperial Irrigation District board, a paid, five-member panel elected by the voters of 140,000-resident Imperial County. "We got some hard-headed people down here - maybe because we've been in the heat for too long."
The river's journey
Once a raging river, the Colorado now peters out in marshes well short of its outlet in the Gulf of California.
It barely makes it that far. Massive dams halt its flow for storage and power generation, and wide canals carry off its water like so many needles stuck in a blood donor.
Near Parker Dam, one aqueduct heads west carrying about 1.2 million acre-feet of water a year 242 miles to Southern California, while close by another carries 1.5 million acre-feet a year 336 miles east into Arizona. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land at a depth of 1 foot. It is about 326,000 gallons and is roughly equal to what two households use in a year.)
Farther south, near the Mexican border, 3 million acre-feet of water a year are diverted into the All-American Canal, the 82-mile canal built in 1942 to carry water into the Imperial Valley. From the canal, the water flows into a network of smaller canals connected to irrigation ditches.
The broad reach of Colorado River water is extraordinary because it is not a particularly big current to begin with, with an average depth of only about 20 feet and an annual flow that is only 3 percent of the amount of the Mississippi River's.
Indeed, seen from the riverbank at Blythe, Calif., on the border with Arizona, the Colorado looks like any other medium-size river. A few small trees sprout on its bank. Children in life vests are paddled upstream in a canoe. A man on a jet ski roars up and down.
In effect, many say, the Colorado today is less a river than a glorified water main serving seven states - a main that happens to have carved out the Grand Canyon eons ago.
"The river is extremely generous - as a desert river it produces a lot of water," said Lisa Force, a program director for Living Rivers, a group seeking to reduce Colorado River water use. "But it was seen as inexhaustible, and it's not."
Valley of green
The mining of the river began in earnest more than 100 years ago when enterprising farmers made a discovery that would change the Southwest forever: The California desert near Mexico may look bleak, with less than 3 inches of rainfall a year, but sprinkle water on it, and it turns to gold.
The desert adjacent to the river was made of silt carried from the Grand Canyon and elsewhere upstream, deposited in a broad swath by the river's shifts in direction. When irrigated, this soil was extremely fertile. And with the warm climate, farmers had a far-longer growing season than those in the rest of the country.
Cox, who has farmed for 30 years, marvels at the founders' ingenuity every time he drives out of the valley and reaches the point where green fields stop and the brown desert resumes.
"I'm in awe of this valley," he said. "I'm in awe of the people who had the foresight to divert the water from the river."
Backing up the farmers' discovery was the law. When it comes to allocating natural resources, the East operates on riparian rights: You can use water your property abuts, as long as you're not taking from your neighbor's fair share.
Not so out West. Ever since the gold rushes of the mid-19th century, natural resources on the frontier were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. By diverting water into the desert, farmers not only won themselves newly fertile land, but they also secured the Imperial Valley's place in a series of compacts and court rulings that make up the "law of the river."
In 1922, an interstate compact divided the river's annual flow in two portions: 7.5 million acre-feet to the upper basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico; and 7.5 million to the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. In a 1944 treaty, Mexico won rights to 1.5 million acre-feet a year.
Shares among the lower basin states were settled by the Supreme Court in 1963: California got 4.4 million acre-feet, Arizona got 2.8 million, and Nevada got 300,000. Within California, the Imperial Valley and some smaller farming districts eventually were allocated 3.85 million acre-feet, while the Metropolitan Water District, which delivers water to 18 million people in Southern California, gets only 550,000.
After all the divvying up, the Imperial Valley receives about 3.1 million acre-feet a year. That's more than all of Arizona, and nearly one-fourth of the river's flow, which has averaged about 13 million acre-feet a year, far less than the 15 million assumed in the original divisions.
This worked well enough for years; California was able to take as many as 800,000 additional acre-feet a year left over by other states. But in the past decade, the arrangement has been badly strained. Not only have Arizona and Nevada started claiming their shares, but a four-year drought has further reduced river flow.
The crop debate
With supplies running short, scrutiny has fallen on the Imperial Valley's $1 billion farming industry. Most of the valley's 470,000 acres is in water-guzzling field crops, mostly alfalfa and other grasses that feed the West's dairy and beef industries, as well as cotton, wheat and sugar beets.
Only about 55,000 acres are used for vegetables and melons, which use much less water per acre than field crops. The area's long growing season makes it ideal for winter vegetables, and its lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, onions and carrots are its most lucrative crops on a per-acre basis.
But many farmers prefer field crops: Their prices fluctuate less, due partly to federal price supports; they require less labor; and farmers say there is limited demand for vegetables.
"We have a huge amount of water being used in inefficient ways for crops that one might question why they're being grown in this area," said Joseph L. Sax, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has consulted for the Interior Department. "It's a good place to grow avocados, but why we're growing cotton and alfalfa here is a question a lot of people have been asking for some time."
Meanwhile, having enjoyed a large share of river water for so long, valley farmers have seen little reason to limit use.
The valley's canals are unlined, allowing water to seep through their borders. Irrigating by gravity means that 15 percent of the water used runs out at the end of the field, runoff that goes into the Salton Sea. Some farmers, like Cox, now use pumps to recycle some of the runoff, but the pumps, and more costly conservation tools like drip irrigation systems, are relatively rare.
"They won't admit they're wasting water," said Adan Ortega Jr., vice president of the Metropolitan Water District. "Because they believe they have this God-given right to the water, they don't have any incentive to preserve it."
This kind of talk infuriates Imperial Valley farmers, who say they would use more efficient irrigation if they could afford it. Already, they say, they've spent thousands on tiles placed beneath their fields to keep salt from sinking too far into the soil.
Moreover, they say, it's their thousands of tons of field crops that fuel California's dairy industry (the largest in the country), feed the Southwest's cattle and help maintain America's cotton industry.
"Where's this agriculture going to go? It has to go someplace," said Steven A. Pastor, director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau. "You need your feed grown, your cotton. Do we want to rely on other countries to supply our food and fiber?"
Heidi Kuhn, an activist whose husband owns and runs one of the valley's largest farms, sums up the argument with a simple refrain for what she calls "the person sitting in Starbucks": "We're the latte in your coffee."
"We're not just doing this for our own health. We're doing it because there's a market need for it," she said. "I don't know if growing food is any less beneficial than having 112 golf courses in Palm Springs."
On a tour of her family's 14,000-acre, 300-employee operation, Kuhn shows just how productive a single Imperial Valley farm can be. After passing field after field of the Kuhns' hay crops, she stops at the vast lot where the grasses are baled, compressed and stacked by the hundreds under long sheds.
Many of the bales, a grass variety called Sudan grass, will be loaded in containers to be transported to California ports by the train line running adjacent to the lot. There, they will be shipped to Japanese ranchers, who prefer Sudan grass for cattle feed but lack room to grow it.
Other bales will go to California dairies, but many stay with the Kuhns, to serve as feed at their own 4,000-cow dairy. The dairy's milk, in turn, goes across the street to a cheese-making plant that produces Muenster and Swiss cheese.
It's a thriving operation, but Kuhn says it's not hugely profitable, given slumping commodity prices and the cost of state labor and environmental regulations. Her family recently moved into her mother-in-law's old house, a three-bedroom rancher with a cracked tennis court. It's one of the nicer houses in El Centro, a struggling town of small bungalows and shuttered stores, but it's no mansion.
Indeed, many valley landowners resent the widespread notion that their big share of Colorado water has made them wildly wealthy.
"They see us driving nice pickups and cars and having a house in San Diego," said John Grizzle, a valley farmer since 1964, sitting in the office of his 7,000-acre operation. "They don't realize the hard work and the risk involved. The return on our investment is not large."
As they fend off critics, the valley's residents also face internal divisions.
There are disagreements about how to divide the $2.5 billion San Diego would pay for the 200,000 acre-feet a year it would receive under the transfer. As the deal stands, the Imperial Irrigation District would distribute most of the money among the county's roughly 400 farmers, requiring much of it to be used for more efficient irrigation, while some would go toward the larger community.
A large faction of farmers, though, believes that the money, as well as any revenue from future transfers, should go directly to landowners, who in turn would give part of it to the community. This group has sued the irrigation district.
Others view this effort as a naked grab by farmers for the millions in water revenue.
"We better make sure that if the money comes in, it's applied to increasing efficiency, to insulate us against long-term attacks on our water use," said district board member Andy Horne. "If landowners are allowed to take the money and do whatever they want with it, including sticking it in their pocket and not doing anything toward efficiency, then we haven't accomplished that."
Farmers also disagree over whether to reduce their usage by investing in more efficient irrigation or by leaving fields fallow, which would mean lower crop yields and fewer farm jobs but would require less effort and leave more water for the Salton Sea than conservation would.
To valley outsiders, the ambivalence over the transfer is hard to fathom, given how much money is involved. The valley would get $258 an acre-foot from San Diego for water that costs farmers $16 an acre-foot.
"What they're not admitting is that these are the first farmers that will be allowed to sell water at market rates," said Ortega, of the Metropolitan Water District. "They're going to create a precedent that a lot of people in the valley can benefit from."
But this is just what alarms many in the valley - including some of the non-landowning Mexican immigrants who see the farms as the biggest source of employment in the county. Once farmers start selling water, they fear, it may it be hard to stop; farmers will walk away rich, but the valley will have sold away its livelihood.
One thing unites the county residents: All see themselves as underdogs trying to keep their rights from being pried away by powerful California cities.
"We can see the handwriting on the wall: We have a very large water right, and there is a seemingly unquenchable thirst for this water around the southwestern United States," said district board member Horne. "We're such a small community facing such a huge population that doesn't care what happens to us in the future."
And all in the valley think the same thing when they hear urban critics question the wisdom of desert farming: Why doesn't the same argument apply to the cities of the arid Southwest?
"San Diego is as much of a desert as we are," Kuhn said. "Why is it any more logical for people to live there?"
It's a question that San Diego officials don't have the luxury of asking. Whatever the wisdom of its growth, the city is now the country's seventh largest, it lacks water of its own, and officials need supplies for 3 million area residents and counting.
The transfer deal with the Imperial Valley is the centerpiece of this effort, but it's not the only element. The San Diego County Water Authority is planning a desalination plant that would process enough ocean water, at great cost, to provide 15 percent of the county's demand.
In addition, the authority is about to finish a massive new dam in a box canyon in Olivenhain, 30 minutes north of the city, that will hold more than two months' supply of emergency water. The aqueducts that bring San Diego's water south from Los Angeles, a mix of Colorado River and northern California water, cross major fault lines, and the city's been at risk of running dry after an earthquake.
The new dam is visible proof of water's primacy in the Southwest. At 318 feet high and 250 feet long, it is designed to withstand an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 7.2. The reservoir, a giant cavity that will be filled over the coming year, is 2,552 feet long; 700,000 cubic yards of fill was blasted out of it.
"With the amount of water we have to deliver to people, we just have to build some amazing structures to do it," said project manager Jerry Reed as he oversaw work on a recent morning.
That is what happened hundreds of miles away in Arizona, where two decades ago engineers designed an aqueduct to carry 1.5 million acre-feet a year of Colorado River water as far as Tucson. The $3.8 billion Central Arizona Project uses six 60,000-horsepower pumps to lift water 824 feet above the river.
Fourteen pumps along its 336-mile route lift the water high enough so it can run downhill to the next pump. At a control room north of Phoenix, two men sitting before a big screen regulate the flow on the 80-foot-wide, 16-foot-deep canal by raising or lowering gates at checkpoints every seven miles.
Things to come
The Arizona aqueduct represents more than just the driving force behind the pressure on California to reduce its river use. The project also offers hints of what might happen in California if the San Diego water deal sets a precedent for future transfers.
That's because in Arizona, transferring water from agriculture to urban use has been the policy for decades. Unlike their counterparts in the Imperial Valley, the cotton and alfalfa growers on the plains of central Arizona lack enshrined rights to the Colorado River, and have long relied on groundwater.
When the state built the aqueduct, it allocated two-thirds of the water to farmers - but with the understanding that their share of the water would decline as farmland was developed for homes, leaving most of the water for urban users. And indeed, large tracts of former farmland around Phoenix are sprouting dense subdivisions.
This sprawl has met with relatively little official resistance. Subdivisions may cause problems, officials reason, but they have one thing going for them: They require about half as much water as the farms they replace.
"We want to sustain agriculture as long as possible, but while making sure we have a sustainable water source" for residential use, said Dennis G. Kimberlin, a state water manager in Pinal County, an agricultural area south of Phoenix that is rapidly being developed.
Those farms that remain, meanwhile, have already taken many of the steps that California farms may face. Because water is at a greater premium in Arizona, costing farmers $36 an acre-foot - more than double the Imperial Valley rate - there is incentive to conserve.
Dan Thelander, for instance, added an underground drip irrigation system four years ago at his 500-acre cotton field in Pinal County. It cost $1,500 per acre, but his cotton now uses one acre-foot less per acre.
His neighbor, C.L. "Bill" Scott, long ago leveled many of his fields so that less tailwater runs out at the end. Instead of irrigating his fields at a steady stream for a full day as Cox does in the Imperial Valley, Scott sends a stronger stream across for only two hours, producing a more even level of saturation while using less water.
Scott happens to know the Cox family and isn't about to second-guess their techniques. He chalks up his conservation to market demands: His water costs more, so he must use less.
"There are a lot of things you can do to make better use of water," he said, driving a visitor across his 6,800-acre farm. "It's a matter of economics. It makes you do things that are cheaper."
Even if the transfer from the Imperial Valley to San Diego is approved, few expect the deal to settle the water wars for good.
Other demands for water loom: The state of Colorado is discussing building its own version of the Central Arizona Project to carry its share of the river over the Rockies to Denver and other cities. This may be prohibitively expensive, but if it happened, it would remove 400,000 more acre-feet a year from the river, about 3 percent of its flow.
More immediate is a drive by environmentalists to allow more of the river to make it to Mexico, to start restoring the delta, at a cost of 150,000 acre-feet a year. And in Arizona, Native Americans winning rights to hundreds of thousands of acre-feet, forcing cities to buy water from them.
But the biggest fights ahead, many expect, will be continued clashes between cities that will need ever more water and farms that still use most of it.
Regional water officials admit they may eventually push the limits of their supply, even with the transfer. This, they say, will force higher water prices, constraining further growth, and may even raise the once-unthinkable prospect of "toilet-to-tap," treating wastewater for drinking use.
Aware of the growing needs of the cities, Imperial Valley farmers say they are bracing for the federal government, goaded on by the Metropolitan Water District, to return and pressure them to give up even more water. If the valley refuses to sell, they fear, federal officials will again declare it is wasting water and take the water for free.
"It's a slippery slope," said Pastor, the farm bureau director. "A lot of farmers worry this isn't going to end until all the water is shipped to San Diego or Los Angeles."
Valley landowners say they owe it to their forerunners on the land not to let that happen. Their critics may question the wisdom of having created a farming valley in a desert, they say, but the transformation happened, and it can't just be reversed, 100 years later.
"This place is not unworthy of being here. It's families who are proud to be here, who put roots here, who had kids here," said Kuhn, the activist. "It's not as simple as wiping us off the map to have more water for L.A."