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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick here in dry California. The Colorado River is a prime source of water. In Southeastern California the Imperial Valley uses more than a fifth of that river's entire watershed. And that is as much as Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada combined.

BRAND: In the Imperial Valley, 400 farmers have had rights to that river water for a long time. But an eight-year drought has nearby areas looking to the Imperial Valley for a drink.

From member station KQED, Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ: The best way to get a lay of the land in the Imperial Valley is to leave the land.

Mr. RALPH STRUM(ph) (Farmer): Echo taking off runway 32, straight out departure, northbound.

SCHMITZ: Farmer Ralph Strum takes me up in his 1959 Beechcraft two-seater.

(Soundbite of plane)

SCHMITZ: Within a few minutes we're a thousand feet about the valley. Up here you're reminded of the transformative power of water.

Mr. STRUM: It's really amazing how - the fact that this is a desert, and then right here it's just so lush.

SCHMITZ: From high above, the Imperial Valley looks like a dark emerald someone dropped on the beach. Beyond, there's nothing but bright golden desert. This gem of a valley looks out of place, unnatural. And it is.

Three thousand miles of canals and drainage ditches crisscross the half-million acre valley, bringing in water from the Colorado 15 miles east of here. It's the most extensive irrigation system in the world. And it's made this valley a farmer's dream come true - complete control over cheap water in a place where the sun shines almost every day. Many farmers here are millionaires as a result. They're able to grow practically whatever they want, whenever they want.

From his pilot seat, Ralph Strum points out the patchwork quilt of crops.

Mr. STRUM: The darker green fields are alfalfa. Light green fields are probably Bermuda grass.

SCHMITZ: Other shades of green represent lettuce, wheat, sugarcane. Seven states share the Colorado River. But this tiny valley uses the largest amount of its water, which is why it's so green. But in the last year patches of brown have appeared here and there.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

SCHMITZ: Back on the ground, I walk through stalks of dead wheat. They look like toothpicks piercing the cracked, parched soil. With all the water this valley receives, why are some farmers allowing their fields to dry up? Because urban areas on the coast are paying them good money to do it so they, the cities, can use the water instead. Water in this valley has become a commodity.

A program to leave fields fallow is part of a deal the Imperial Irrigation District made five years ago. The district, which goes by the acronym IID, agreed to sell 10 percent of the valley's water to San Diego. It was the largest water transfer in U.S. history. And it has now divided what was once a united valley of farmers.

Mr. MIKE MORGAN (Farmer): It's not like they're - they've gone out to be corrupt. The nature of the beast is just corrupt.

SCHMITZ: That's farmer Mike Morgan talking about the local water managers. He carefully drives his Dodge truck between fields of vegetables. His land borders the southern shore of the Salton Sea and enormous Salt Lake.

The sound of him stopping his truck and opening his door startles thousands of white pelicans. They take flight in unison.

(Soundbite of pelicans)

SCHMITZ: For a moment, the blue sky is flooded white. Morgan is too angry to notice. We've been talking about the water transfer and it's riled him up.

Mr. MORGAN: Most bureaucracies misspend your tax money. This one is misspending the whole lifeblood of the whole valley.

SCHMITZ: Farmers pay the IID $17 for an acre-foot of water. As part of the water transfer, the IID is selling this same water for around $300 in acre-foot to San Diego - ultimately reaping several billion dollars for the IID and local conservation projects. But Morgan thinks the IID wasted an opportunity to bring more money to the valley. He's led a group of farmers to file several lawsuits to stop the water transfer. He wants individual farmers, not the IDD, to control the historic water rights of the valley.

Not a good idea, says John Pierre Menvielle.

Mr. JOHN PIERRE MENVIELLE (Farmer): The worst thing that's happened in this valley right now is you have farmers fighting farmers.

SCHMITZ: Menvielle is one of those farmers. He's the vice president of the IID board of directors. He says if Morgan and his group had their way, farmers would be able to sell their share of water to the highest bidder, destroying the valley's economy. Menvielle says the infighting among farmers over who owns this precious resource is a vulnerability that its thirsty urban neighbors could exploit.

Mr. MENVEILLE: And that's a bad deal. And then the outside world looks at us and says look at those dummies. Instead of sticking together, we're beating each other up. It's just ludicrous.

SCHMITZ: The water transfer was wildly unpopular with all farmers here. In fact, soon after the deal was signed, the IID board passed a resolution saying the agency would never transfer its water again. But many farmers here quietly fear the resolution is toothless and that the last water transfer may provide a blueprint for future ones - turning this region into a kind of water ATM.

That may sound farfetched. But the truth is, scientists predict by mid-century climate change will reduce the Colorado River flow by 15 percent. That's a conservative estimate. In that scenario someone is going to have to give up water. And urban water agencies know full well this desert valley - population a mere 150,000 - receives by far the largest allocation of water along the entire Colorado.

Professor ROBERT GLENNON (University of Arizona): It's a shocking number. And while the aggregate value of the crops grown in Imperial Valley is substantial, relative to other uses of that quantity of water, it's pretty pathetic.

SCHMITZ: Robert Glennon is a professor of law at the University of Arizona.

Prof. GLENNON: If you were to examine the State of Nevada with its water use for the Las Vegas strip, you would find that they use one-tenth the amount of water of the Imperial Valley, but they generate a huge multiple in terms of jobs and revenues to the community for the use of that water.

SCHMITZ: But people with jobs and revenues still need to eat. And that's where the Imperial Valley comes in, argue folks like Andy Horne - a former IID board member. If you eat salad in the winter, it's a good bet most of its vegetables are grown in this valley. The warm temperatures here make the valley an essential supplier of winter produce. Horne says if the time comes for another water transfer from this region, it'll force society to face the consequences of drying up an important agricultural resource.

Mr. ANDY HORNE (Former IID Board Member): People are really going to have to do some soul-searching as to whether or not they think it's a good idea to quit farming and grow yards for people in suburbia and build strip malls, whether or not that's a better use of water than using it to grow food for people. And I think that's the ultimate choice our society is going to have to make.

SCHMITZ: That's a choice some would argue has already been made.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz.

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