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Our Opinion: No land for water

November 15, 2001

If there is one thing we've learned here in the Imperial Valley, it is that everybody wants our water; and it's "our" water until proven otherwise, understanding there is movement afoot on that issue.

One way to get the Valley's water is for outside water interests to buy local farmland and leave it fallow, with the unused water remaining in the Colorado River for the next priority user.

We think such a practice should be prohibited under law. We are concerned with such purchases because of the unknown economic and environmental threats they pose to the affected area.

Remember the Owens Valley.

Such land purchases remain viable threats to the Valley's water, as we've seen recently by the purchase of 16,000 acres of irrigable land in the Palo Verde Valley by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Of that land, about 9,600 acres are under cultivation, and farmers will be asked, and paid, to fallow the land and sell the water to MWD. The remaining acreage is not being farmed, and likely will not be now that MWD owns it.

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Of course, in the Palo Verde area, farmers hold legal title to the water, as well as the land. In the Imperial Valley, the water legally belongs to the IID, that is, the people.

To ensure the people's interests are protected, we would like to see a state law that prohibits the purchase of land for the purpose of taking food-producing land out of production, laid fallowed, with the resultant water then moving elsewhere.

We are especially opposed to seeing that water move to wealthy areas such as San Diego and Los Angeles that can well afford desalination, but are opposed to placing such a burden on their customers when it is much easier to destroy the Imperial Valley and its way of life — a way of life that began long before the beautiful people began flocking to the California coast.

The real problem, as we see it, is that some people would sell vast tracts of local farmland for their own personal gain, leaving behind the rest of the community to dry up like under-priced melons in a field.

Such greed was tried only eight years ago when the Bass brothers of Texas bought up about 42,000 acres of "grazing" land with the intention of fallowing it upon demand of the San Diego County Water Authority to provide 400,000 acre-feet of water for 125 years, with about $100 million in profits yearly to the Basses.

Contrary to an Oct. 19 San Diego Union-Tribune editorial, they were not just "allegations" that the Basses were buying the land to sell the water. We still have copies of the confidential attorney-client privileged letters between the Bass' Western Farms-retained attorney and that of the San Diego County Water Authority. The charges were facts. The information was so sensitive to the SDCWA that its leadership actually considered a lawsuit against us for publishing long excerpts from the letters.

Interestingly, there are many who defend the SDCWA by claiming "everybody" knew the Imperial Valley's water rights are held in trust by the Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors, but then why the discussions with the Basses at all?

Nonsense is right.

The intention of the discussions was for the Basses and the SDCWA to destroy this Valley for their own needs: millions for the billionaire Basses and massive amounts of water for San Diego. Yes, at some point the SDCWA realized who holds the rights, but even after two years of legal research by the Bass' attorney, it was still thought the rights were held by the farmers.

We think a law to preclude such land purchases by those seeking to steal water from food producers outside their jurisdiction would be welcome throughout the state.

Separately, we'll be interested in monitoring and reporting on what progress is being made by those — and their supporters — who would sue the IID over the holding of the Imperial Valley's water rights.

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