Will the people of Imperial Valley jump or get pushed?


The heavily agricultural Imperial Valley in California borders Mexico. Virtually all its water comes from the Colorado River. Water wonk David Zetland explains how climate change (and changing political conditions) will depopulate the area. The Imperial Valley gets 20% of all water from the Colorado River. Las Vegas, despite a much larger population and economic base, gets a mere 2%. The inland Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley is in serious danger of drying. If that happens, decades of agricultural runoff recklessly dumped into it will create seriously nasty air pollution making living there unpleasant at best.

That status quo in the Imperial Valley is untenable. Change is coming. The continuing drought makes hogging 20% of Colorado River water politically impossible, current water law be damned. Vegas and Phoenix aren’t going thirsty while the Imperial Valley continues to get its full 20% allotment simply because it has ancient water rights. Ain’t gonna happen.

I gave a guest lecture to some students in Imperial Valley last week and mentioned to them that:

  • Imperial Valley was unpopulated 120 years ago. Climate change will depopulate the region again
  • Imperial Irrigation District uses 3 MAF/year; Nevada (Vegas) gets 1/10th as much water
  • IID uses 20 percent of the Colorado River (or 10 percent of California’s Ag water)
  • 160,000 people live in IV. Only 10 percent are in ag; the rest work in government or service
  • Las Vegas has 600,000 people and a MUCH larger economy

These facts should be considered when considering three futures for IV/IID:

  • Dept of Interior condemns IID and directs its water elsewhere, for human or environmental uses
  • IID/IV sells its water and people move, winding down operations over time
  • A drying Salton Sea results in hazardous air quality that forces people to move

The best future is obviously #2, but do the people of Imperial Valley know that? If not, will they get the first or third option?

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