The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

A Hot, Arid Desert Is Capital’s Water-Soaked Bonanza

Jan 17, 2024

The Colorado River is a lifeline for a large part of the western U.S., and especially the Southwest. It supplies water to more than 40 million people, and electricity to about one million households. But a big majority of the Colorado River’s water, about 80% of it, is used for agriculture.

This means that a huge portion of the Colorado River’s water goes to big corporate farming operations that dominate agriculture in the U.S.

During the drought that has been plaguing the western U.S. for more than 20 years, the flow of the Colorado River has declined significantly, by about 20%. But even as state and local governments have been imposing cuts in the amount of water residents of Western states use, big agriculture in the Southwest has not reduced its use of the Colorado River water.

In recent years, however, the water level in the two largest water reservoirs in the U.S., Lake Mead and Lake Powell on the Colorado, has become dangerously low, raising the possibility that the Colorado will stop flowing altogether. This has brought on the agenda the issue of big agriculture also taking cuts in the amount of the Colorado River water it uses. The big question, of course, is who gets how much of a cut.

The Uneven “Sharing” of the Colorado River

Among the seven states that share the basin of the Colorado River, and its water, California gets the greatest share. And while about 25% of the river’s water goes to California, the Imperial Valley, an 800-square-mile agricultural area in California’s southeast corner, gets about three fourths of all the Colorado River water that California gets.

Put another way, the Imperial Valley, which occupies barely one six-hundredth of the area of the Colorado River Basin, uses nearly one fifth of all the water the Colorado River carries!

How did this small area, located in one of the hottest, driest deserts in North America come to be such a big water user?

This question is closely tied to another question—that of the Colorado River’s significance in the economy of not only the Southwest, but the entire U.S. Water from the Colorado River supports 15% of the crops and 13% of the livestock grown in the U.S. These numbers are greatly out of proportion for a river that, in terms of the amount of water it carries, ranks 37th among the rivers in the U.S.—the Mississippi River, for example, carries on average about 26 times as much water as the Colorado River does.

In fact, the Colorado River has come to play such a disproportionately large role in the U.S. economy precisely because of its association with the Imperial Valley, which itself plays a greatly disproportionate role in the U.S.’s agricultural output. The Imperial Valley supplies two thirds of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. during winter months. And thus, the Colorado, as the sole water supply of the Imperial Valley, has itself come to shoulder an oversize role in U.S. agriculture.

Bringing Water to the Desert

The reason the Imperial Valley, an extremely hot and dry area, even came into consideration for agriculture is tied to the beginnings of large land holdings in the American West.

After the Civil War, big real estate interests emerged in the West thanks to the building of the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. The federal government gave railroad companies land around the railroads for free—so much of it that, in total, this enormous handout amounted to 272,000 square miles of land, a land area greater than that of France. In California, the federal government handed over 17,200 square miles of land, or about 10.5% of all land in the state, to the Central Pacific Railroad (which later became Southern Pacific Railroad). The company sold off much of this land, in big chunks, to speculators, including in the southeastern corner of California, known as the Colorado Desert.

While the whole southwestern U.S. is arid or semi-arid, agriculture could develop easily in some parts of the region, such as Central California, counting on rivers fed by snow from the Sierra Nevada, as well as underground aquifers, for irrigation. But for Southern California, and especially the Colorado Desert where the Imperial Valley is located, there was not enough groundwater to support large-scale agriculture. The Colorado River was the only option for irrigation.

Even though the Imperial Valley was more than 80 miles away from the Colorado River, its low altitude made a gravity-driven canal seem feasible. The construction of the first such canal began in 1900. The project, dubbed the Imperial Canal, was carried out by the California Development Company, which was looking for customers for the 500,000 acres of land it owned in the Colorado Desert, which it had christened “Imperial Valley.” Agriculture in this desert spot could be a lucrative endeavor, because in the hot climate of the Colorado Desert, it was possible to grow fruits, vegetables and other crops several times a year—IF abundant water were available.

This first attempt to tap the Colorado River for agriculture in the desert, however, ended in disaster. Just a few years after the canal was completed, in 1905, the Colorado River swelled after heavy rainfall, and it flooded the farm fields in the Imperial Valley—even creating a large lake, the Salton Sea.

A Massive Water System … for the Profit of a Wealthy Few

If agriculture, and the profits it promised, were to materialize in the Imperial Valley, a major water system had to be built, with dams and reservoirs, to control the unpredictable flow of the Colorado River. But this was a very big and expensive project, something the businessmen who would profit from the Imperial Valley agriculture were not capable of accomplishing on their own—nor were they willing to pay for it. But the federal government was.

In the 1930s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built a vast water system consisting of the Hoover Dam, Parker Dam, Imperial Dam and the All-American Canal, to dam the Colorado River and divert its water to Southern California—mainly to the Imperial Valley and the growing cities in Southern California, above all, Los Angeles.

The FDR Administration promoted the expensive Boulder Canyon Project on the pretext that it would provide free irrigation water and cheap electricity to ordinary Americans—above all to the small family farms. But the purpose of this talk was to sell this expensive project to the population when, from the beginning, the big, publicly funded federal projects were intended for the profit of a few big businesses.

As early as January 1907, the President Teddy Roosevelt had made a pitch to Congress for a big federal project to dam the Colorado River for flood control and irrigation. Just weeks before, in late 1906, Edward Harriman, the head of Southern Pacific Railroad, had telegraphed Roosevelt to ask for his help to persuade Congress to reimburse Southern Pacific for the cost of the levees it was building to stop the flooding of the Imperial Valley.

Congress refused to reimburse Southern Pacific in 1907. But just a few years later, the federal government built an emergency levee for the portion of the Imperial Canal that was in Mexico. The Taft Administration intervened on behalf of big business: some of the biggest landowners in that part of Mexico were Americans—mostly Southern California millionaires, including General Harrison Otis and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, real estate tycoons and publishers of the Los Angeles Times, who owned 850,000 acres in Mexico.

A decade later, Congress also passed a bill authorizing preliminary work for a flood control system on the Colorado River. The plan encompassed much more than flood control, though. It included irrigation canals and power generation for Southern California as well. A big dam, with a big reservoir, was being planned.

Clashing Capitalist Interests

Not surprisingly, such an expensive public project drew opposition in Congress—not to mention the objections of land owners in other parts of the Colorado River Basin, and their political representatives in Congress, who resented that the Colorado River was, essentially, to be diverted to California. To bring the opponents of the project in line, the federal government set up the Colorado River Commission, made up of a representative from each of the seven Colorado Basin states, and headed by Herbert Hoover, who was Secretary of Commerce at the time.

An agreement was, in fact, never reached. The Colorado River Compact, signed in November 1922, said that the “Upper Basin” (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) and “Lower Basin” (California, Arizona, and Nevada) would have equal shares of the river water, without specifying what each state would get. The states had to ratify the compact, and they did not. The various sets of capitalists who were competing for Colorado River water were unable to reconcile their conflicting interests.

In 1928, the federal government pushed the project through anyway. Congress passed the bill for the Boulder Canyon Project, named after the location of the dam, but introduced by the Congressman representing Imperial Valley.

But the question of the enormous cost of such a project had still to be resolved. After all, this was to be a 726-foot-high concrete dam, the highest in the world at the time, with a width at its crest of 1,244 feet. Proponents of the project, including top officials of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which was to build the dam, proposed getting the project paid for by selling the electricity to Los Angeles—that is, making L.A. ratepayers foot the bill for the massive Boulder Canyon Project. That’s why this big dam had to be built within a 350-mile distance to L.A.—the farthest distance electricity could be transmitted at the time—and why Boulder Canyon, about 300 miles from L.A., had been chosen for what became the Hoover Dam.

A Huge Water Grab

Hoover Dam created the biggest reservoir in the U.S., Lake Mead, behind it. In the 1960s, Lake Mead was joined by another huge reservoir 275 miles upstream on the Colorado River, Lake Powell, created by Glen Canyon Dam. These two huge reservoirs, combined with an extensive network of canals in the desert, were designed so that the Imperial Valley gets a vastly excessive share of the Colorado River water.

Other users of the Colorado River water were bypassed by this great “national project” which, effectively, diverted the Colorado River to Southern California. The share of the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) was automatically reduced in years of drought, since users in these states got their water directly from the stream. But in the Lower Basin also, Arizona was not getting its supposed allocation for lack of canals and infrastructure. It wasn’t until 1963, when the Supreme Court ruled that Arizona was entitled to its previously agreed-upon share, that this began to change. New canals were built—enabling large corporate farms in the Arizona desert to grow crops like cotton.

Imperial Valley land owners continue to get all the Colorado water they can use—and more. So much water that these land owners flood their farm fields with it in the name of irrigation while, with the drought shrinking the Colorado River, Arizona and Nevada have been imposing cuts on their users during the drought. Las Vegas, for example, has outlawed lawns and imposed a moratorium on evaporative cooling in new buildings.

Imperial Valley land owners try to justify their big water grab based on a 19th century rule of “first come, first right to water”—due to the early attempt of the California Development Company to bring Colorado River water to the Imperial Valley more than 120 years ago.

It’s an excuse, of course. It’s just that this archaic, outdated rule from the 19th century suits the interests of big capitalists who keep a tight grip on the water in southwestern U.S. If senior water rights were truly respected, Native American tribes would be the first to get their water from the Colorado River. But of the 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin, 12 are still fighting to get all of their water rights.

The same is true for the farming communities in Mexico near where the Colorado River used to flow into the ocean. It no longer does. In the 1960s, after the Glen Canyon Dam was completed and Lake Powell behind it began to fill, the Colorado River stopped reaching the ocean, depriving the farming communities in that part of Mexico of their lifeline.

This is a reckless, rapacious water grab for the profit of U.S. Big Agriculture. The fact that people need water to live is simply not a concern under capitalism.

The Concentration of Land—and Water Rights

Today, 20 so-called “families” hold legal rights to more than half the Colorado River water that flows into the Imperial Valley, and these families trace their power back to about a century ago.

In 1911, the newly-formed Imperial Irrigation District (IID) took over the Imperial Valley farmland after the 1905 flood. The IID sold parcels of this land to small farmers, newly-arriving migrants from other parts of the U.S., as well as other countries, in particular, Japan and India.

Competition under the capitalist system quickly led to the concentration of these initially small farms into fewer and fewer hands—especially the hands of big, absentee landowners. As early as 1924, a study estimated that 85% of Imperial Valley landowners lived either on the California coast or out of state.

Today, members of the 20 extended families hold more than half of Imperial Valley’s Colorado River water rights. The Elmores and the Abattis will tell you the story of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, who came to the Imperial Valley as workers in the early 20th century. But they won’t dwell much on, for example, that Grandpa John Elmore married the daughter of a citrus magnate, or that Grandpa Battista Abatti’s sons, Ben and Tony, were already growing crops on 24,000 acres, worked by 7,000 workers.

Intermarriage among these families further contributed to the concentration of land and water rights under the control of fewer and fewer, interrelated families. These big landowners, along with outside speculators, also took advantage of racist practices, legal and extralegal, to expand their holdings—such as California laws barring Asians from land ownership, or Japanese-American farmers being sent to federal concentration camps during World War Two. As in other parts of California, after buying up Japanese-owned farms at foreclosure sales, for example, big landowners in the Imperial Valley organized racist protests and petitioned Congress to prevent the return of Japanese-Americans to the farms they had owned and worked before the federal government uprooted them by force.

These 20 entities call themselves families, and technically it’s true. But the farming operations these particular families hold control of are not only very large, but more importantly, they are part of a massive corporate network of food production and distribution for the entire North America. In the end, the designation of “family farm,” which the government also uses, serves to obscure the corporate dominance hidden in U.S. agriculture.

Behind the disproportionate power and privilege of big Imperial Valley landowners lies the enormous corporate power of the U.S. agricultural and food industries. And big farming operations have used this power to circumvent the “160-acre rule,” which would have, supposedly, limited the use of free Colorado River water to small family farms.

The 1862 Homestead Act and the 1902 Reclamation Act limited ownership of “free land” to 160 acres. The Imperial Valley represents one example of how big landowners, with the complicity of the state apparatus, have avoided these restrictions. In 1980, after decades of legal battles, the Supreme Court ruled that the 160-acre rule did not apply to Imperial Valley landowners, supposedly because they had acquired their land and water rights from private irrigation companies, which had not imposed such limits.

What All That Water Is Used For

And what do the Imperial Valley land owners grow with all that water they get for free? Whatever is most profitable for them, of course.

Imperial Valley land owners say they deserve all this water, drought or no drought, because they grow fruits and vegetables for the whole country. Yes, they do grow fruits and vegetables. But, in fact, more than any other crop, Imperial Valley farmland is used to raise cattle—the number two crop grown in the Imperial Valley being alfalfa, to feed the half million head of cattle raised there.

Alfalfa is grown in the Imperial Valley to make hay for animal feed. But instead of growing it where it rains, the owners of Imperial Valley land are growing it in the desert—because they have more water than they need to irrigate their fields, and for free. And in the hot climate of the Colorado Desert, they can get up to eight crops a year!

Imperial Valley land owners get so much water that they in fact sell some of that water to other farmers and to municipal water districts for extra profit—a lot of extra profit, in fact. Since 2003, for example, the IID, which manages the extensive canal system that distributes the Colorado River water to Imperial Valley farms, has been selling about 10% of its water to the City of San Diego, to the tune of more than 100 million dollars a year. That money goes to Imperial Valley landowners, supposedly to compensate them for “sacrificing” part of their irrigation water. Practically all that money is extra profit for the landowners, since the federal government gives them the water for free. The IID does charge a small fee (about $20 per acre-foot) for the maintenance of the irrigation canals, but what San Diego pays for the water it gets is nearly 40 times that amount!

The Drought: Another Excuse to Rob Taxpayers

Far from bringing a loss, as the big landowners pretend, the current drought has represented another way for them to make even more profit. And politicians and government officials are again there to help them to do exactly that.

Last May the news media reported, with “great relief,” that California, along with Arizona and Nevada, had “finally” agreed to cut the amount of Colorado River water it uses by 10% until 2026. In exchange for this supposed “sacrifice,” the federal government is offering recipients of Colorado River water in these states 1.2 billion dollars from President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Not surprisingly, the big Imperial Valley landowners will be big winners in this “water conservation” scheme at the expense of taxpayers.

In other words, when experts and government officials tell us that we have to restrict water usage and pay more for water and food because of the drought, it’s nothing but scare stories—so that they can shovel even more taxpayer money to big companies, and make ratepayers and taxpayers pay for their overblown profits.

The Crises Created by the Capitalist System

Taken all together, the reservoirs on the Colorado River and its tributaries can hold four to five times the annual flow of the Colorado River. In other words, the extensive water system that has turned the Colorado River into such an enormous resource for tens of millions of people has also made it possible for us today, as a society, to overcome problems created by the drought. But instead, the Colorado River, this lifeline for tens of millions of people, is itself drying out. It’s another example of how the capitalist system is destroying more and more of the natural resources we all depend on.

But it’s not only natural resources that capitalism destroys. It destroys people also—namely, the working class.

For example, Imperial County, where the Imperial Valley generates an agricultural output of one billion dollars a year, is also one of the poorest counties in California and one of the counties with the highest rate of unemployment. Not to mention the disasters that have befallen the population in the region—that is, the farm workers who create all that wealth. The catastrophic flood of 1905 stands out in the history of Imperial County. But the disasters caused by the reckless profit drive of land owners have never ended for the farm workers who have lived and worked in the Imperial Valley.

For decades, irrigation water contaminated with pesticides and harmful chemicals used for fertilization (such as selenium, used in liquid fertilizers) has poisoned farm workers and their families. That irrigation water, with all the poison in it, flows into the Salton Sea, which does not have an outlet. As the lake evaporates, the toxic chemicals in it become more concentrated—that is, the water becomes more poisonous. And as the lake recedes and the poisonous lake bed is exposed, the air gets also contaminated—sickening the farm workers and their families.

Behind the Imperial Valley stands the whole U.S. agriculture and food industries. While the big capitalists, a tiny minority in the population, pocket enormous profits, the workers who grow the food and process it, thus creating those profits, are thrown from one crisis into another. For many of them, their lives get destroyed.

There is only one solution: For workers to take the control of the water system—which workers have built and have been running day in, day out—into their own hands. And that has to happen in the whole agricultural sector, where the water is used. In fact, the whole economy has to be controlled by workers, because no part of the economy can function without the others.

History shows us that the working class can effectively challenge the capitalists’ power—when it is organized and fights, as a class, in its own interests. Agricultural workers, who have always made up one of the most exploited sections of the working class, have also organized and fought back many times in history, including in California, especially during upsurges in labor struggles in the 1930s and ’60s. Most, and biggest, fights in California took place in the Central Valley, but Imperial Valley workers were part of these fights too.

Everywhere in the world, the history of the working class is full of such fights and mass movements. But the problem is for those movements to lead into working class revolutions. The working class can end the capitalist system and replace it with an economic system that answers to the needs of the whole society, not to the greed of a tiny number of speculators.