Habitat concerns muddle Colorado River water plan

Habitat concerns muddle Colorado River water plan

For decades, irrigation runoff from Imperial Valley farms has fed the Salton Sea. As farmers cut back on water use, the inland sea has receded, impacting habitat for species that live in its marshes and nearby drainage ditches.

Photo/Caleb Hampton

Habitat concerns muddle Colorado River water plan

By Caleb Hampton


Imperial Valley farmers preparing to participate this summer in programs to conserve Colorado River water have had to put their plans on hold due to concerns from wildlife agencies that reduced water use could result in habitat loss for three endangered species that live in the region.

After decades of drought and warnings that the river could run dry, California, Arizona and Nevada—the three states in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin—agreed last year to conserve 3 million acre-feet of water by the end of 2026.

The short-term conservation effort is the largest ever on the Colorado River. It relies on Imperial Valley farmers, whose century-old water rights entitle them to more of the river than other users, to come up with about a quarter of the overall water savings.

The Imperial Irrigation District proposed two programs farmers could voluntarily participate in to conserve water in exchange for compensation. One program would use federal funds to expand an existing program that pays farmers to install water-saving irrigation systems. The other would pay farmers to stop irrigating alfalfa and other forage crops for 45-60 days during the summer, sacrificing some hay cuttings without killing the perennial crop.

“I would think that there should be a sense of urgency to get this across the finish line,” said Larry Cox, an Imperial Valley farmer, referring to clearance from government agencies to implement the programs.

The conservation programs were proposed more than a year ago, and district officials told farmers they expected them to be authorized by this spring. But earlier this year, during the environmental review process, wildlife agencies requested a biological consultation to ensure the programs would not violate laws that prohibit killing or harming endangered species.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife declined interview requests. They said they could not estimate how long it might take to conclude the environmental reviews.

“We appreciate and support the critical need to conserve and reduce Colorado River water usage,” Tim Daly, information officer for CDFW, said in a statement. “We look forward to continued and active engagement with the many partners at the table to evaluate final environmental review proposals.”

Michelle Helms, public affairs officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, said in a statement that the department was consulting with other federal and state agencies to assess the environmental effects of reduced irrigation, “including potential impacts to the endangered Desert Pupfish that live in the drain system leading to the Salton Sea.”

The inland sea has been fed for decades by runoff from Imperial Valley farms and is shrinking as farmers cut back on water use. Two endangered bird species—the California black rail and the Yuma clapper rail, which live in the marshes at the edge of the Salton Sea—were also included in the consultation, the Desert Sun reported.

It is not unusual that environmental reviews for large water transfers or conservation programs take years to complete, “but we also know that this is a short-term commitment,” IID Water Manager Tina Shields said in an interview in March. “Obviously, we had some conservation goals that we will not be meeting this year because of the delayed implementation.”

The deficit irrigation program was initially slated to begin June 1. The program could still be authorized this year, but farmers said the later in the summer it gets, the harder it would likely be to solicit participation.

“Every day the odds diminish of us having a deficit irrigation program this year,” said Mark McBroom, who chairs IID’s Agricultural Water Advisory Committee and grows citrus fruit, alfalfa and other crops.

McBroom said the delayed implementation of Imperial Valley conservation programs had complicated cropping decisions for some farmers. “It puts everybody in a quandary,” he said. “There are so many intangibles connected to this deficit irrigation plan.”

Land leases, which often begin and end in July, as well as crop planning, ground rotation and budgeting water use for the year, could all be affected by a farmer’s participation in the program.

“You’ve got a pretty good amount of farmers that have been underfarming based on this expectation of a deficit-irrigation program,” McBroom said, adding that he held off on possibly planting more Bermuda grass this spring due to plans to participate in such a program.

The deficit irrigation program would pay farmers to forfeit a portion of their yearly water allotment. But the exact amount cannot be determined in advance, McBroom explained, so some farmers began the year using less water than usual to ensure they would have enough left in their allotment after the program concludes for fall and winter crops.

Because of existing water agreements that pass on the Imperial Valley’s “underrun” to urban users in Southern California, the water savings generated by underfarming will not bolster river supplies. “It benefits no one here locally,” McBroom said.

Cox, who also serves on the water advisory committee, said last week he was advising farmers to plan for the possibility of a deficit-irrigation plan beginning in July or August, but to also have a backup plan if the program is not authorized this year.

Meanwhile, IID officials and state lawmakers have sought solutions to enable the conservation effort to get underway.

In February, the irrigation district sponsored state legislation, Assembly Bill 2610, that would allow Fish and Wildlife to authorize the “take,” or killing, of endangered species resulting from the implementation of IID conservation programs that are part of the Lower Basin’s short-term plan to protect the Colorado River.

The bill, authored by Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, would extend an authority already given to the department to permit the take of endangered species resulting from water transfers from the Imperial Valley to San Diego under a 2003 deal. It would also unlock $175 million in federal funds—tied to the completion of water conservation—for habitat restoration projects at the Salton Sea. The bill passed the Assembly last month with bipartisan support.

“Assemblyman Garcia’s legislative support means we have the opportunity to more quickly materialize conservation programs that growers are ready to sign up for while protecting the Colorado River and ensuring the full extent of federal dollars are used to fund habitat and air quality projects at the Salton Sea,” JB Hamby, California’s Colorado River commissioner and IID vice president, said in a statement.

IID officials said they did not believe the water reductions anticipated from the programs—up to 800,000 acre-feet over three years—would result in habitat loss for the pupfish or bird species. According to Shields, an IID analysis found the conservation program would not have a greater impact on the Salton Sea than happens from normal year-to-year variability in drainage flows.

(Caleb Hampton is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at champton@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted. However, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation