The political winds and the direction that the Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors charts are likely to change Dec. 7, when a board that is openly friendly to the concerns of the agricultural community takes its seat.
Directors Matt Dessert and Jim Hanks will continue to serve divisions 1 and 3. Bruce Kuhn will replace Director John Pierre Menvielle for Division 2, and Steve Benson will replace Director Stella Mendoza for Division 4. Norma Sierra Galindo will likely retain her lead over Wally Leimgruber to fill Anthony Sanchez’s seat on Division 5.
Central to much of the campaign season’s noise and rhetoric was the issue of water, the lifeblood of the Imperial Valley. Although numerically small, the agricultural community uses about 97 percent of the district’s allocation of the Colorado River’s water.
Directors Mendoza and Menvielle alleged that the agricultural community wishes to control the water in ways that benefit only agriculture, and sell the water to outside agencies, leaving the Valley to wither.
It is difficult to find an issue in the Valley that is more decisive than that relating to control of the water, if it can be controlled by any one group.
A member of the agricultural community recently asserted that people dealing with water and the district should be farmers.
The Imperial Valley Press asked sitting and soon-to-be directors for their thoughts about this issue, and how they would address the needs of agriculture with the concerns of the community as a whole, should the need to adjudicate between the two arise.
Benson had a measured response.
“I think it should be a balanced approach,” he said. “I think you have to be a farmer to understand how water is used. I’m the only active farmer on the board. I’ll represent farmers and everybody else.”
Hanks said that the Water Conservation Advisory Board should be listened to. The WCAB is a committee of water users that provides input and advice on water-related issues that impact the local agricultural community.
“They use 97 percent of the water,” Hanks said. But when it comes to making decisions in regard to the use of water, the board ultimately has to defer to legal boundaries established by water law and case law.
Dessert said animosity over water between the different communities can be traced to the board’s decision to raise municipal water rates in 2005. Rates were uniform prior to that, he said.
“They’ve come up with a pricing structure that needs to be reviewed,” Dessert said.
The position of the farm community needs to be respected, Dessert intimated.
“The ag community cannot be reduced from being a vocal, powerful, integral part of our community,” he said.
Kuhn’s assessment was direct.
“If they (the agricultural community) … hadn’t settled this Valley, there would be no water in this Valley,” he said. “Can we turn our back on the rest of the people? Of course not. They have to be treated equitably. The overall community is covered by law. Society’s water will not be turned off.”
Ultimately, Kuhn said that because the agricultural community’s livelihood is tied to the availability of water, its needs should be prioritized.
“Farmers need (water). Without it they’re out of business. It is a public resource but those farmers need more water and they’ll get more water,” Kuhn said.
Galindo echoed Kuhn’s sentiments.
“Farmers have to have the main say-so with regards to water issues because they have the largest stake,” she said. “It does not mean they own the water.” However, she emphasized that the Board of Directors must take the needs of the entire community into consideration.
The issue regarding the control of water may be one of respect.
Ayron Moiola, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, said she would like to see a board that discusses issues openly and in depth before it makes its decisions. She said it’s difficult to watch a decision-making body that holds sway over one’s livelihood vote on preconceived notions and not listen to multiple sides of an issue.
“What I appreciate about Director Hanks is that he is already educated on the subject (when it comes up for discussion), asks thoughtful questions and listens to both sides of the issue,” Moiola said.
Staff Writer Antoine Abou-Diwan can be reached at 760-337-3454 or firstname.lastname@example.org