Twentieth-century solutions to twenty-first century problems abound across the Colorado River Basin. In Nevada, a proposed pipeline to suck rural Nevadan aquifers dry and send that water to Las Vegas was recently defeated by a coalition of tribes, ranchers, farmers, and environmentalists after an epic decades-long legal battle. In Utah, the once fast-tracked Lake Powell Pipeline is stalled as it has become clear that this enormous pipe would facilitate more permanently thirsty sprawling suburban growth and create an additional drain on the already dwindling Colorado River.
Here in our backyard, another battle is brewing. The San Diego County Water Authority is planning to build a duplicative multi-billion-dollar pipeline to carry 100 billion gallons a year of our Imperial Valley’s water away to the coast. If not stopped, this massive pipeline will cost our Valley secure water rights, health at the Salton Sea, future local growth, local jobs, and small businesses. This pipeline represents disastrous long-term impacts to the Imperial Valley all in an effort to lower water rates in San Diego.
The existing sale of nearly 100 billion gallons of our water annually has resulted in explosive growth in San Diego while devastating the Salton Sea. Now, two-thirds of the bird population has gone away, 99.5 percent of the fish are gone, and 40 square miles of exposed lakebed at the shrinking lake mean toxic dust blowing into the lungs of our children and the most vulnerable.
The San Diego Pipeline represents billions of dollars of commitment to keep water rates low for La Jolla villas, but leaves the Salton Sea high, dry, and dying. Since the sale of Imperial Valley’s water to San Diego began 17 years ago, it has been clear that the health of the public and environment in the Imperial Valley were never a priority. The clear interest of San Diego is not to take responsibility for the disaster unfolding at the Salton Sea, but rather, simply to take our water.
The San Diego Pipeline will cost the Imperial Valley future local growth, jobs, and small businesses. In 2047, this destructive sale of Imperial Valley’s water to San Diego has the potential to end. This gives IID the ability to develop the full use of our water here for our Valley’s future growth and expansion. If the pipeline is built, it will be all but impossible to put that water back to use in Imperial Valley. Without that water, we cannot grow our Valley like we deserve.
The pipeline would make a temporary bad deal in the QSA a permanently destructive deal with the San Diego Pipeline. Once a multi-billion dollar pipeline is built carrying water to continue the expansion of San Diego, rather than Imperial Valley, the pipeline will deprive future generations of Valley residents of the ability to put the water that belongs to them to use here for this Valley’s growth and development.
Imperial Valley has some of the oldest and largest water rights on the entire Colorado River. The only time a senior water right matters is in the time of shortage, in which junior users are cut in order to satisfy the needs of senior water right holders. As of now, in the event of a shortage, Imperial Valley is secure. However, the construction of a pipe will make our secure water rights vulnerable. If San Diego is cut back on the Colorado River, will they allow this multi-billion-dollar pipe to go dry? It is hard to imagine that. Inevitably, the Water Authority will come with hat (and cash) in hand for more water to fill an empty pipe, and if unsuccessful, pressure or steal if needed as is the storied tradition in western water.
Selling Out to San Diego
San Diego-sympathizing pipe proponents suggest a few marginal benefits, which evaporate upon closer examination.
First, they argue that a new pipeline to San Diego wouldn’t carry new water and that “the Valley is not being sucked dry now.” Evidently, these proponents have not recently visited the dying Salton Sea and the forty square miles of exposed, emissive lakebed blowing toxic dust into our lungs as water that once sustained the Sea and its vibrant ecosystem has been instead diverted to build strip malls, golf courses, and condominium complexes in San Diego.
With San Diego’s future skyrocketing growth and water use projections, one would be ignorant to believe that the Water Authority would commit decades to studying, permitting, and constructing this pipe — not to mention the billions to build and maintain it — but not build additional capacity to obtain more of their cheapest source of water in the future.
Second, proponents argue that the water transfer to San Diego subsidizes water rates for Imperial Valley cities and farms and that the cost of water to users would double without it. However, the Imperial Irrigation District managed for nearly a century to deliver water downhill from the Colorado River to Imperial Valley efficiently and affordably without subsidy before the QSA transfers. Pipe proponents argue that a subsidy is now somehow required despite a nine-digit annual influx of water transfer cash and less water to deliver. Rather than becoming dependent on minimal handouts from another region seeking more of our resource, Imperial Valley water users should simply be billed the actual cost of efficient delivery.
Third, proponents argue that by building the pipe that IID’s unused annual entitlement of water which now flows to junior users would be captured with some sort of local storage. However, the local storage in the pipeline plan merely amounts to 900 acre-feet — or roughly 0.03 percent of Imperial Valley’s water entitlement. The tens to hundreds of thousands of acre-feet lost to underruns every year can and should only be stored and banked behind Hoover Dam at Lake Mead (a massive reservoir that already exists in dire need of a boost) in IID’s name for our future use locally.
A Better Way
Mortgaging Imperial Valley’s future to secure lower water rates for San Diego County (already benefiting at our expense) will not make Imperial Valley a better, healthier, or more prosperous place. It is time for Imperial Valley to act in our best interest for a change and reject this dangerous and destructive pipeline. We cannot let San Diego suck Imperial Valley dry. We must keep our water here and put it to use in the place we live for the wellbeing of every living being.
If we are truly interested in seeking the brightest future possible for Imperial Valley, we must stop believing that water transfers are a preordained fate or that existing ones are somehow desirable. We must make it clear that Imperial Valley’s water is not for sale. That the purpose of our water right is to create value in Imperial Valley, not market our rights to create value for someone else, somewhere else. That we must endure every pain possible to use every drop possible in Imperial Valley for the advancement of this Valley. That we must disassociate water from money and restore the simple idea that water, when put to work in Imperial Valley, creates value for all.
We must recognize that acrimonious internal squabbles over water rights ownership would be a moot point if water wasn’t being sold elsewhere in the first place, but simply delivered at cost to Imperial Valley users. Coastal urban users must recognize that growth must come at their own cost, not at ours. Conservation, desalination, water recycling and reuse can provide an unlimited supply of water to coastal Southern California, without the economic, social, ecological, and political costs associated from draining the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea. Instead of the big cannibalizing the small, we can grow together as a region.
We should aggressively work to ensure that every drop of water in Imperial Valley produces local opportunity, jobs, tax base, and environmental improvement instead of catering to monied urban interests. We must put every drop of water we have to valuable use here in the Imperial Valley. We must stop inviting conquest by consent by flirting with urban water agencies over new and existing destructive transfers and pipelines to make them permanent.
Seventeen years into the San Diego transfer, isn’t it time to put pencil to paper and decide whether the transfer was worth it after all — let alone building a pipeline to make it permanent? We have to ask ourselves, who is it really working for? Very well for a fortunate few. Just not for the rest.
The irony should not be lost on Imperial Valley residents that while the San Diego County Water Authority is seeking to build a multi-billion dollar pipeline to permanently secure our Valley’s water for their use at the lowest cost possible, ostensibly to keep water rates low in San Diego County, the residents of Calipatria and Niland are fighting a proposed rate hike by a private water utility that will make these Valley communities pay water rates that are higher than those in San Diego — higher in fact than the cost to produce desalinated water from the Pacific Ocean.
If the struggling communities of Calipatria and Niland can somehow (barely) afford these larcenous water rates, so too can La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe, and Del Mar afford the cost of sustainable conservation, water recycling, reuse, and desalination.
One Calipatria water activist recently shared a thoughtful quote: “Without water the desert is nothing but a grave.” Should the San Diego Pipeline move forward, that statement will take on prophetic meaning for Imperial Valley.
Paid for by the committee to elect JB Hamby
Inspired by @GreatBasinWater, we are leading the fight to stop the San Diego Pipeline from sucking Imperial Valley dry.@mckelmer @Sammy_Roth @MarkOlalde @ByIanJames @LifeOnThinIce @DesertReview https://t.co/jRjQixbGXu— JB Hamby (@GotitaJB) September 25, 2020