HOLTVILLE, Calif. - The evaporating Salton Sea is the flashpoint for the latest dispute in California's water wars, testing an uneasy alliance of farmers and city dwellers that has sought to wean the Golden State from overreliance on Colorado River water.
Under heavy pressure from the federal government, California agreed in 2003 to stop taking more than its share from the Colorado, ensuring that fast-growing Arizona and Nevada don't get shortchanged. The plan's centerpiece called for shifting enough water from the agricultural Imperial Valley to serve nearly 600,000 San Diego area homes.
The huge farm-to-city water transfer threatened California's largest lake, whose receding shores are layered with dead fish. More than 200 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea survives on water that seeps down through the soil of Imperial Valley farms. Shifting water to sprinkle lawns and flush toilets in San Diego means less for the lake.
For seven years, the solution has been to pump enough water into the Salton Sea to offset what was lost to San Diego. The 350-square-mile lake is evaporating at a rate of roughly 450 million gallons a year, but the thinking was to prevent the San Diego transfer from hastening its demise.
All went as planned until a Sacramento judge ruled early last year that the 2003 pact was invalid, finding the state of California violated its Constitution by essentially writing a blank check to protect the lake as part of the agreement. The pact remains in effect while the ruling is under appeal.
Like all battles over water rights, lawsuits and saber-rattling are inevitable with so many interests to balance and so many livelihoods at stake. This time, the judge's ruling created a rift between two major water players in California: The Imperial Irrigation District, which serves Imperial Valley farms, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Los Angeles-based water giant that reaches 19 million consumers.
Imperial Valley farmer Ralph Strahm, like many who follow California water wars, believes the state and its warring water agencies will find a way to pass muster with the courts. Too much is at stake to risk returning to the decades of acrimony that preceded the 2003 peace accord, and the standoff has repercussions that may ripple throughout the West.
"Even in a good marriage you have issues to deal with," he says as he drives dirt roads through his 4,700 acres in Holtville, about 30 miles south of the Salton Sea.
For now, that marriage may be facing its biggest test.
The 2003 pact required the Imperial Irrigation District to put a gallon of water in the lake for every two it reassigned to San Diego, giving the state time to work out a long-term lake rescue plan by 2017. It also agreed to pay farmers to idle some land so that the diversion would be possible.
Farmers have received $40.1 million to idle land since 2003 - this season, roughly $350 an acre covering 16,700 of the region's 450,000 acres. The payments are so popular that the agency has a lottery each spring for one- and two-year contracts to decide who qualifies. Every July, steel gates along a vast system of canals are locked to prevent winners from drawing water for their farms.
"It's kind of like drugs," Strahm, 54, said of the payments, as he stood beside a barren field that recently sprouted cauliflower. "We're all hooked, unfortunately, for now. We're going to have to detox pretty soon."
The agency began to have second thoughts about signing contracts for the 2011-12 season after the judge invalidated the pact. If the ruling stands, it wouldn't be able to sell water to San Diego and would be stuck with the contracts. Farmers are getting $6.9 million this season.
General Manager Brian Brady placed an order with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in September for enough Colorado River water to supply 82,500 homes and sent it to the Salton Sea. He said the water was being stored there only temporarily, while the pact was in legal limbo.
Metropolitan Water District cried foul, saying that Brady diverted water to which it was entitled under a pecking order established in 1931 among California agencies. As a result, the Los Angeles agency said it might be forced to draw water from Nevada's Lake Mead, setting off alarm bells in Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Water Authority accused Imperial of being cavalier and shortsighted.
Imperial insisted it was allowed to send that water straight to the Salton Sea under the 2003 pact.
"To my way of thinking, it was a very straightforward decision to make," Brady says.
Brady complained to the Bureau of Reclamation that Metropolitan wanted to end California's peace accord. Metropolitan shot back that the accusation was "rhetoric."
Meanwhile, Imperial has accepted bids to idle land in 2011-12 but warned farmers that it may not award contracts.
Wayne Olesh, 59, volunteered to idle about 200 of his 1,000 acres near Holtville. In the past, the payments have given him enough comfort to gamble on riskier crops like alfalfa, which can get wiped out by heavy rains.
"It gives me a guaranteed amount I can count on," he says. "It's sort of like insurance."
Critics say idled land is a drag on a local economy that needs all the help it can get. Imperial County has long had the highest unemployment rate in the United States, 29.1 percent late last year.
Alfalfa grower Tom Brundy, 54, says farmers aren't hiring laborers, repairing equipment or buying fertilizer.
"I'm a farmer, and a farmer farms," he says. "Farming is much better for the community than not farming, Business is much better for the community than no business."
Amid the squabbling, the Salton Sea continues to disappear. Its elevation is dropping up to 12 inches a year, exposing about 800 acres a year and turning shallow waters into dry beds that send dust into nearby towns. A vast area outside the town of Calipatria that was covered with water only a few years ago looks like white moonscape with a few gangly trees.
Its waters - about one-third saltier than the ocean - continue to draw pelicans and a tremendous variety of birds that feed on tilapia, desert pupfish and sailfin mollies. But biologists say they will disappear without fish to prey upon.
The lake formed in 1905 when a Colorado River levee breached. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a major tourist draw and desert playground for celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Bing Crosby and the Beach Boys.
With a budget crisis that threatens schools and health clinics, California isn't close to financing a long-term plan to save it. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration offered a plan that would cost $9 billion.
In foreclosure-ravaged Salton City, a moribund town of about 1,000 people where homes sell for as little $20,000, residents marvel at the how fast the water is receding. Jean Cloyd, who retired from Reno, Nev., in 1995 with her husband, saw fishermen daily from her beachfront mobile home three years ago but now hardly ever does.
"From here it looks like sand but you walk out there and it's all dead fish bones," said Cloyd, 76.