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If you've eaten any lettuce or spinach recently there's a good chance it came from Southern California's Imperial Valley. This desert region produces about 80 percent of the nation's winter vegetables. But years of drought, and a population boom in the Southwest are threatening the region's the water supply. From member station KQED, Krissy Clark reports.
KRISSY CLARK: The next salad you eat this winter, picture the valley Vince Brooke is driving through: A beige desert up against glittering fields of green. Brooke works for the local irrigation district, and tours busloads of water wonks from various Southwest cities through this valley - down the bumpy roads, past cropland and canals.
Mr. VINCE BROOKE: You know, you can tell when they just are not, how can I say this diplomatically?
CLARK: They're just not, on board, Brooke says, with the way agriculture uses water down here.
Mr. BROOKE: We're water wasters, we're water hogs, the ag sponge, a waste of water.
(Soundbite of rushing water)
CLARK: This is the water they're talking about - the Colorado River -the life-blood of a billion-dollar agricultural industry in the Imperial Valley. Thanks to this giant cement structure.
Mr. DOUG COX (Imperial Irrigation District): This is Imperial Dam.
CLARK: Doug Cox manages the dam for the Imperial Irrigation District.
Mr. COX: This is the only source of water for the Imperial Valley. All the drinking water, all the ag water, this is it.
CLARK: Imperial Dam shunts water from the Colorado River 82 miles through a canal, across the desert to Imperial Valley Farms. When the project was completed, back in the 1930s, it was considered one of the engineering wonders of the world.
(Soundbite of news reel)
Unidentified Man: The Imperial Valley, once dry and barren, with the help of water from the Colorado, yields rich crops when irrigated.
CLARK: There was just one problem. When Imperial Dam was built, the region was in the midst of the wettest period of the last millennium, and the Colorado River was mighty.
But 11 years of drought - and more thirsty Southwest sprawl than that guy from the film could've ever dreamed - mean trouble for Imperial farmers. Soon, there may not be enough water to go around and still make the desert bloom with sweet corn, onions...
Mr. RALPH STRAHM (Farmer): Lettuce and romaine, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli.
CLARK: Ralph Strahm is a third-generation farmer here. He's hoping his generation won't be the last. The Strahms came here right around the time western states were divvying up water from the Colorado River.
The strategy was pretty much first come, first served. And Imperial Valley farmers got served a torrent - priority rights to almost a fifth of the entire river. More than what Arizona and Nevada got combined.
That was almost a century ago, but Strahm says there's still a good reason so much water should go to farms like his.
Mr. STRAHM: The rest of the nation is becoming a service economy, and Imperial Valley is producing something. So many of our jobs in the manufacturing industries have been exported away from the United States, we're keeping those jobs here.
CLARK: But they're not keeping all the water here, anymore. Under pressure from federal officials, farmers have reluctantly sold some of it to the more populous and powerful cities of L.A. and San Diego.
Strahm points to a controversial result of that transfer of water along an irrigation channel.
Mr. STRAHM: Watch your step.
CLARK: A big padlock secures a gate across the channel's mouth.
Mr. STRAHM: And that lock is to prevent water from being put on this field for the term of a fallowing contract.
CLARK: Over each of the next several years, farmers are fallowing a chunk of land about the size of 10 Central Parks. Cities pay thousands of dollars for each unfarmed acre, and it can actually be a good deal for farmers when crop prices are low.
But it strains the valley's larger ag economy - the tractor salesmen, the fertilizer companies. And in the future, even more fallowing may be needed.
Lake Mead - that's the reservoir that holds Colorado River water for the Imperial Valley and most of the Southwest - has a 50 percent chance of drying up in as few as 10 years, according to climate researchers, unless water-use fundamentally changes.
Mr. JOHN PIERRE MENVIELLE (Board member, Imperial Irrigation District): You can only get so much blood out of a turnip.
CLARK: John Pierre Menvielle is a retired farmer on the board of the Imperial Irrigation District.
Mr. MENVIELLE: We want to be, you know, good stewards to the land and good neighbors with our urban partners, but they want to put restrictions on us, and how we grow our crops and the amount of water we use here. Why isn't somebody putting restrictions on growth on the coastal plain, and their development?
CLARK: It's a choice between growing urban populations, and growing cheap winter vegetables. And it's one people across the nation make, each time they buy spring greens in February.
For NPR News, I'm Krissy Clark.
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