These farms use more Colorado River water than 2 states combined A single irrigation district in California, along the Mexican border, takes more water from the Colorado River than all of Arizona and Nevada. It's under pressure to use less.

Meet the California farmers awash in Colorado River water, even in a drought

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Water from the drought-plagued Colorado River is much sought after and much disputed. Cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas depend on it, but the single biggest user of that water is a single irrigation district in the southern tip of California, which serves about 400 farms. The farmers there face growing pressure to give up some of that water. Dan Charles reports from El Centro, Calif.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Drive straight east from San Diego across the mountains, and you come to bone-dry desert. And then suddenly, weirdly, there's mile after mile of green fields. Steve Benson, who's co-owner of Benson Farms, drives me by a crew planting lettuce.

STEVE BENSON: I'd have to get out and see, but I assume it's romaine lettuce. But it might be iceberg lettuce.

CHARLES: This is not California's Central Valley, the country's biggest producer of produce and nuts. It's Imperial Valley along the Mexican border. And these fields only exist because more than a century ago, fortune-seeking land speculators and engineers dug a canal to bring in water from the Colorado River, 80 miles east of here.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SLOSHING)

CHARLES: Today, the Imperial Irrigation District takes more water from the Colorado River than all of Arizona and Nevada combined. It's enough to cover all the irrigated land here - almost 800 square miles - with 5 inches of water every year. But now, with the giant reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell shrinking fast, the federal government is demanding a plan for cutbacks up and down the river. And Sarah Porter, who's director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, says everybody is looking at the Imperial Irrigation District.

SARAH PORTER: They have the most water and, in some senses, the most power. You know, the more water you have, the more - you know, you have a lot of leverage if you have a lot of water.

CHARLES: Imperial Valley farmers, like Andrew Leimgruber, say this water is their property.

ANDREW LEIMGRUBER: We have the laws in place. You know, when water comes anywhere west of the Mississippi, it's based on a first come, first serve, and that's how it's always been.

CHARLES: Imperial Irrigation District claimed its water from the Colorado before cities like Phoenix and Tucson did.

LEIMGRUBER: There was a lot of latecomers to the Colorado River. So...

CHARLES: So your solution is cut them off?

LEIMGRUBER: Yeah.

CHARLES: Actually, nobody really expects cities to get cut off completely. The farmers say they understand people need water for health and safety, although maybe not for swimming pools and lawns. And they also know that this crisis is so bad, they will have to cut back, too. JB Hamby, a member of the Irrigation District's board of directors, says they're looking to make a deal.

JB HAMBY: The river has a gun to everybody's heads, and it's in everybody's interest to try and work out this thing.

CHARLES: Because within a few years, Lake Mead could drop to a level called deadpool, and water would stop flowing through the dam. It would never reach the canal that supplies the Imperial Valley.

HAMBY: I think we would rather come up with a voluntary agreement to live with a little bit less to ensure that we actually have water. If you get to a point where you're at deadpool, you have nothing at all.

CHARLES: Some legal experts say the federal Bureau of Reclamation could step in and cut water deliveries to farmers. Farmers would almost certainly challenge that in court. The farmers are hoping that the government will pay them to use less water. Some have suggested payments of $1,500 or more per acre to cut water use by about 20%. Steve Benson says cutting that much is doable. Farmers could buy new, more water-efficient irrigation equipment or cut back on the crops that cover most of the land here, like alfalfa and grasses. Those crops get baled into hay to feed cattle or horses, and they aren't usually as valuable as vegetables.

BENSON: So instead of eight cuttings of alfalfa, we might turn off the water in the summer and just dry up the field and then let it come back in the fall. The reality is, we'll probably be taking more of our summers off. My kids will be happy.

CHARLES: But lurking in those details is a bigger and scarier question about the future of the whole valley - 180,000 people live here now, mostly Mexican American. Imperial County is already one of the poorest in California. And there's a fear that less water, less farming, means even less of everything. John Hernandez, a community activist here, says there's also a question of fairness if most of the money that the Irrigation District gets for using less water - potentially hundreds of millions of dollars each year - gets passed out to just a few hundred farms.

JOHN HERNANDEZ: On the one hand, you have the most disadvantaged community. But on the same - in the same community, you got some of the richest farmers. Something is not right when that's going on in the neighborhood.

CHARLES: He says this crisis on the Colorado River is a time for the people who've claimed that water, and the wealth and power that came with it, to share more of it.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles in El Centro, Calif.

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