April 5, 2023 By Caleb Hampton

After a day in the fields, farmworkers walk through Calexico on their way home to Mexicali last month. Each year, an estimated 15,000 people cross the border to work on farms in the Imperial Valley. 

As river runs dry, desert region is at a crossroads

As early as midnight, scores of Mexicali residents with U.S. citizenship or legal status line up at the port of entry. They cross into Calexico, walking past darkened storefronts, and gather near a 24-hour donut shop. Before dawn, they board buses for fields across the Imperial Valley.

Every year, some 15,000 people legally cross the border to work on farms in the region. In the winter, they join local residents in harvesting as much as 90% of the nation’s vegetables.

“If they’re working the cilantro or parsley, once the season is finished, they start with the carrots or they go to the broccoli or the lettuce,” said Adelaida Ibarra, a former farmworker and lead advocate for Sure Helpline, a local nonprofit.

For a hundred years, ever since engineers diverted water from the Colorado River, farming has shaped and sustained life in the valley. Imperial County’s $2.9 billion agriculture sector, wholly dependent on the Colorado River, accounts for a quarter of its economy, employing one-sixth of its workforce. Scientists warn the river could run dry within two years. As it dwindles, the region stands at a crossroads.

“If agriculture goes away, so goes the community,” said Tina Shields, water manager for the Imperial Irrigation District.

Photo/Caleb Hampton
Irrigators Alonso Cervantes, left, and Roberto Mariscal stand in an alfalfa field west of Calexico where they work. The agriculture sector employs one-sixth of all workers in the Imperial Valley.

The Imperial Valley is home to 180,000 people. The largely Latino county has the state’s lowest median income and its highest jobless rate. Entitled to more than a third of all the water in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin, the region is both rich in water and uniquely reliant on it.

“The main assets we have are water, ground and sunshine,” said Larry Cox, whose family has farmed in the Imperial Valley since 1952. For decades, locals have made their living from the river and planned their futures around it.

Early last month, Roberto Mariscal repaired equipment on a hay farm outside Calexico. Mariscal’s father worked for years as an IID irrigation supervisor, moving water from the All-American Canal into farm ditches. Mariscal, who works for farmer Tom Brundy, hopes to do the same. “This job is an opportunity for me to learn water movement and water pressure—and ag in general—to get the experience I need to be able to join the district,” he said.

In the Imperial Valley, a large part of irrigators’ work is helping farmers manage water-saving irrigation systems so that farms can persevere with diminished water supplies. Since 2003, Imperial Valley farms have transferred up to 18% of their water each year to cities in Southern California. Now, under California’s plan to address the Colorado River crisis, the farms must forfeit an additional 9% of their water. To save the river, the federal government may intervene and enforce steeper cuts.


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