ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. This story was co-published with The Desert Sun.
As the Colorado River snakes through the deserts of the Southwest United States, its water is diverted to cities, states, tribes and farmers along its course.
Drought, climate change and growth have taxed the river in recent decades, and the federal government has called for cuts in usage. But the water still flows.
Officials have drawn down reservoirs to ensure the water promised to Southwestern states and Mexico is there. California gets the most.
That’s because no group is owed more of the river than an irrigation district in the Imperial Valley, one of the driest stretches of California desert.
ProPublica and The Desert Sun found that a majority of the water consumed by farms in the valley goes to members of just 20 extended families.
They used about 1 in every 7 drops that flowed through the Lower Basin of the Colorado River in 2022, or about 387 billion gallons.
Agriculture has always been the largest use of the Colorado River, and California’s Imperial Irrigation District, established in 1911, has among the earliest claims and by far the largest claim to the river. The district — and by extension, the farmers it serves — has access to enormous amounts of cheap water from the shrinking river. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have upheld the farmers’ rights to the water.
The river’s reservoirs cratered last year, with Lake Mead falling to its lowest level since it was filled in 1937. As the federal government weighs paying more than half a billion dollars to the irrigation district and its farmers to use less water, The Desert Sun and ProPublica sought to find out who was using the water and what they did with it.
The district refused to tell us and denied public record requests, saying that identifying individual customers would create “uncertainty, fear and turmoil.” So we used satellite data, combined with records on who owns and farms each field in the valley, to estimate for the first time exactly who benefits from the vast supply of water, and how they use it.
These estimates show that 20 farming families account for most of the district’s use of the Colorado River.
Farmers in one family, the Abattis, used an estimated 260,000 acre-feet, more water than the entire Las Vegas metropolitan area uses. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.
The district and its farmers emphasize that they keep a steady stream of broccoli, lettuce, onions and other produce on American dinner tables, including in the dead of winter. But only a few families used a majority of the water they got to grow food that people eat.
Instead, we found that most use the bulk of their water growing hay to feed livestock.
Water used to grow hay
While Southwest cities like Las Vegas have turned to conservation tactics like ripping up lawns as they near the limits of their river allocation, the irrigation district hasn’t faced mandatory reductions for 20 years.
It holds some of the oldest rights to the river’s water. Many of the district’s farmers are grandchildren of early homesteaders, and the land they farm has guaranteed use of large amounts of river water.
This allowed the Imperial County farmers to produce almost half a billion dollars’ worth of hay in 2022, according to the county’s agricultural commissioner. Some of it is used to feed nearly 400,000 cows that are raised here in the scorching desert. Significant quantities are shipped out of the valley — both domestically and overseas.
Growing that much hay takes a lot of water. But the district, like all agencies that distribute it, gets the water for free from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and charges growers only $20 for an acre-foot of water. Cheap water helps make growing hay in the Imperial Valley profitable.
Critics charge that shipping alfalfa overseas to feed other nations’ livestock is akin to exporting water that’s desperately needed back home.
Anne Schechinger, who researches farm subsidies for Environmental Working Group, a national consumer advocacy group focused on agricultural and other industrial hazards, said giving the river water to the irrigation district and every other agency for free is “crazy.”
“Everybody wants it, and there’s not enough of it,” she said. “They’re not valuing the water for what it’s worth.”
Farmer Ralph Strahm said those rates are a key reason he and his family members can continue to grow hay and other crops for animals to eat.
“If water costs too much, then we won’t be able to do it anymore,” said Strahm, whose family used an estimated 78,000 acre-feet of water in 2022, most of it to grow hay and crops for animals to eat. Strahm, like others here, said he is willing to switch to food crops, do seasonal “fallowing” or take other steps to save supply, if paid to do so.
Our estimates use data produced by OpenET, which combines satellite and weather data to gauge the water that evaporates from crops, along with the district’s estimates of how much water crops needed in past seasons. As a result, the estimates reflect only what can be detected by satellites and rely on historic averages. Several experts reviewed our methodology and said it was the most reliable way to estimate water use short of measuring it directly.
Irrigation district spokesperson Robert Schettler didn’t dispute our analysis but said in a statement that despite distributing half of its water to 20 extended families, the district “provides equitable water delivery service to all,” including small landowners, towns and businesses.
We also shared our data with representatives of each of the largest farming families. One disputed the estimates. Wheeler Morgan, who co-owns Sol West Ranches with first-generation farmer Manuel Castro, said the numbers were inaccurate because of water-saving measures on his fields that wouldn’t be reflected in the data. However, our estimates reflect the thousands of acre-feet of savings that the company reported to the district’s conservation program in order to receive payments for water saved. He did not provide his own figures.
Members of three families, including Morgan and irrigation district board member Gina Dockstader, objected to our analysis combining their water with some relatives’ water because their operations are independent of those family members.
“Grouping us together is less similar than grouping Ford and GM together,” said Craig Elmore. His relative, Kate Elmore McCutcheon, who is chief financial officer for a separate ranch near his, agreed. Their generation of Elmores divvied up land amassed by their grandparents and parents.
Dockstader said her father’s water use should not be combined with her married family’s. But she and her husband rented land to her father last year, entitling him to the water that runs with it.
We found that 19 of the 20 largest operations have generational roots in the valley that allow them to farm with cheap water at a scale not readily available to newcomers, and in some cases to pay sharply reduced property taxes for inherited land.
County tax assessor Robert Menvielle said more than a century of births, deaths and marriages, combined with ceaseless buying up of plots from less-successful farmers have concentrated lands and the water that comes with them into ownership by a select group.
“People are interrelated,” said Menvielle. “You’ve got this small group of families, and … they’ve all intermarried, and it’s almost like a feudal type system, where we’re combining our little kingdoms.”
Representatives from six of the top farming families we sent water-use figures to responded with comments. All said they grow food and feed for products that consumers want to eat. Several pointed out that they’ve spent a great deal of money on equipment to conserve water and are willing to do more. They also pointed out that farming, while rewarding, is a risky business with boom and bust cycles.
“We definitely use a lot of water, and I try to save a lot of water. Every year I try to save more and more,” said Jason Taylor, a third-generation farmer, who along with his father, Ralph Taylor, used an estimated 73,000 acre-feet of water, the third-highest of the big families. According to the Taylors, they have spent about $6 million installing water-efficient sprinklers on 2,000 acres.
The Abatti Family: The Biggest Users of the River
Water used to grow hay
By far the largest users of the river are five members of the Abatti family, whose companies used an estimated 260,000 acre-feet in 2022, about 3% of the Colorado River’s entire flow in the Lower Basin. Most of the water they use goes to growing hay. Southern Nevada, which relies on the Colorado River for almost all of its water supply, used about 220,000 acre-feet that year, much of which goes to serve over 2 million people in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.
In the 1920s, their grandfather, Battista Abatti, arrived in the Imperial Valley and started a dairy farm. More than a century later, his grandson Alex Abatti Jr. used an estimated 82,000 acre-feet in 2022, making him the largest individual water user in the Valley. Alex Abatti, like some of the other large farmers, owns related seed, fertilizer, and hay processing, marketing and export businesses.
He declined an interview request and keeps a low profile. “He’s the big whale lurking underwater who rarely surfaces,” said one local water official.
His cousin Mike Abatti, who has waged a decadelong legal battle with the water district over the capping of farmers’ water allocations, used about 46,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water in 2022, according to our estimates — roughly equal to the municipal supply of Long Beach, California. That’s nearly double previous reports of Mike Abatti’s water use drawn from documents filed in those lawsuits.
Neither Mike Abatti nor other Abatti relatives responded to requests for comment.
The Hay Growers
Water used to grow hay
While agriculture consumes the vast majority of the water used here, most of the crops are eaten by livestock.
Sixteen of the top Imperial Valley families mostly use their water to grow hay, which accounts for an estimated 685,000 acre-feet a year. That’s more than four times the amount that goes to the 1.4 million people served by San Diego’s water district.
Imperial County farmers say they grow alfalfa and other forage crops for a reliable income, though they may sell for less than produce. They’re also hardy and fast-growing crops that can yield eight or more cuttings a year in the sun-drenched valley.
The crops feed dairy and beef cattle, which provide milk, cheeseburgers, ice cream and other popular consumer foods. The menu at Delmonico’s Steakhouse in New York City lists an 18 oz steak from Brandt Family Farms, the largest cattle feedlot in the Imperial, for $79.
“Forage crops are a vital piece of our valley’s economy,” said Elmore McCutcheon of Vail Ranches. “We utilize crop rotation as much as we can but are limited to what crops we can economically grow.”
The Brandt family’s cattle feedlot is surrounded by thousands of acres of alfalfa that the family cultivates, using an estimated 45,000 acre-feet of water in 2022. One son also owns the county’s only slaughterhouse. Their entire harvest goes to feed their cattle, Bill Brandt says, “and even then we buy more.”
Strahm said California regulations have squeezed many large dairies out of the state, allowing an export market to flourish.
He said Saudi Arabia is an important customer, as well as Chinese, Korean and Japanese buyers. Strahm said he doesn’t deal directly with foreign companies or governments. Rather, locally owned export companies or local managers handle everything.
“They come right to the field,” he said. “They compress it, pack it and get it to the port.”
In 2022, about 2 million tons of hay were exported from Southern California ports. Half went to China, with Saudi Arabia importing about 200,000 tons of alfalfa hay that year.
This data doesn’t show where the hay was grown, and not all of it came from the Imperial Valley, but the county is California’s No. 1 producer of alfalfa and bermuda grass hay. The county agricultural commissioner reported about 1.6 million tons of hay produced in 2022, including some fields just outside the valley.
The Vegetable Growers
Water used to grow hay
On an early September morning, Jack Vessey drove past neat blocks of red cabbage seedlings, each slightly shorter than the last. The first will be harvested in the middle of November, the second for Thanksgiving week, and so on. His cabbage crops are already sold and scheduled for harvest and delivery to buyers through April.
The Vessey family farm company consumed an estimated 41,000 acre-feet of water in 2022. But unlike most of the biggest users of the river, most of what they grow is for food that people eat.
Vessey loves being a vegetable farmer. “I grow medicine,” he jokes.
When asked about the estimates of his company’s water use, his reply is concise: “producing 1.5 billion servings of leafy greens.” He rattles off a list of crops: romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce, green leaf lettuce, green cabbage, red cabbage, spinach and spring mix.
It’s not easy to grow vegetables in Imperial Valley, either. They can wilt in the scorching summer heat, so most can only grow in cooler months. And the soil tends to be a heavy, cracking clay that hardens and becomes unworkable. As a result, water is used to soak fields before planting. What’s more, vegetables, unlike alfalfa, don’t last multiple years from a single planting and must be replanted often.
Irrigation district data shows that about 690,000 acre-feet of water went to grow greens, vegetables and other non-grass crops in 2022, more than twice what the city of Phoenix’s 1.5 million residents use every year from all water sources.
Vessey and other Imperial Valley growers know their water use is being scrutinized like never before. Asked what his worries are, he replies, “Water. That’s number one. I think about it every day.”
According to some growers, wholesale prices are no longer high enough to grow vegetables as opposed to crops like alfalfa. Jeffrey Saikhon, a third-generation farmer, blames grocery conglomerates.
“There’s no give, absolutely none,” Saikhon said of the prices grocery chains set.
What’s Next for Imperial’s Water?
For a century, water allocations have been based on the assumption that each year there will be 17.5 million acre-feet of water in the Colorado River. There was never that much water, even when shares of the flow were allocated to the Imperial Irrigation District and others. With climate change, there is even less.
Maintaining the river will require balancing the rights and interests of farmers, tribal nations and Sun Belt cities.
Imperial Irrigation District officials point out that the agency now takes 500,000 acre-feet of water less than its legal share from the river each year — about 28% of its 3.1 million acre-foot allotment. Much of that is transferred to urban and suburban areas, which pay the irrigation district for that water. But actual water savings came from updating an antiquated canal system and from paying farmers to use less water.
The district pays farmers to conserve by installing sprinklers and other equipment that is more efficient than opening a canal gate and flooding a field. ProPublica and The Desert Sun estimate that without these water-saving measures, the Abattis, for example, would have used another 30,000 acre-feet of water in 2022.
The irrigation district has offered to conserve another 250,000 acre-feet a year, or about 10% of its current usage, for the next three years, mostly by having federal taxpayers foot the bill. In May, the Imperial Irrigation District proposed that it be paid $840 for each acre-foot it and its farmer customers conserve — adding up to nearly $700 million. By comparison, the value of alfalfa in the valley is about $300 per acre-foot of water. The federal government is weighing the offer.
Strahm and other Imperial farmers support being paid to not irrigate some fields during summer. One of the crops most suited to the summer heat is alfalfa, which can survive without being watered and bounce back when it’s irrigated again.
Cities also continue to cut their water use. Per capita consumption by cities in the Southwest fell 30% from 2000 to 2020. California is about to join Nevada in banning “nonfunctional turf,” like road medians, which helps drive urban water consumption. While they can make more cuts, cities will likely see diminishing returns sooner than they hope.
Global water researcher Jay Famiglietti, at the University of Arizona, says tough decisions are needed to save the river. That includes possibly ending farming in desert areas like the Imperial Valley and shifting it to other parts of the country with more water.
Farmers and officials here say consumer food prices would likely spike if an entire domestic growing region was eliminated.
“Farmers grow what people want,” said Ralph Taylor. “If you want your meat and dairy prices to go sky high, OK. … If you don’t like eating salads, then make Imperial disappear.”
Imperial’s disappearance, however, is unlikely.
Asked this spring if it was fair for Imperial farmers to receive so much river water, California Gov. Gavin Newsom told The Desert Sun,“It is what it is. It’s called senior water rights, and they are well established in law. And they matter.”
Ultimately, Famiglietti said, solutions like convincing American consumers to give up meat just one day a week might be the best way to save enough water to prop up the river.
Until then, a small group of farmers will continue using more water than many cities.
ProPublica reporter Mark Olalde contributed reporting.
Additional development by Al Shaw.