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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.
• Las Vegas
• Los Angeles
• Imperial Valley
Las Vegas •
Los Angeles •
• Imperial Valley
Las Vegas •
Los Angeles •
• Imperial Valley
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
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
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
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
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
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
This allowed the Imperial County farmers to produce almost half a billion dollars’ worth of hay in
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.
Global water researcher Jay Famiglietti, at Arizona State University, 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.
About the Data
To produce estimates of the total Colorado River water used by individual farmers in the
Imperial Valley, ProPublica and The Desert Sun blended cutting-edge analysis of satellite
imagery with land, business and farm records.
We shared our detailed estimates with the Imperial Irrigation District, which did not dispute
them. One out of 35 farmers said we had not included all the water he conserved, but he did
not reply when asked for that amount.
To link individual farmers to their fields, reporters obtained a database of fields created
by the Imperial Irrigation District that identified each field’s owner, as well as the name
of the “tenant” that uses the water. Reporters used business licenses, tax assessor records
and other records and interviewed sources to standardize the names and group them by family
or by corporation.
Technicians with the irrigation district said that the database was not being actively
maintained, but reporters verified that ownership records matched assessor records of
ownership as of 2022.
Reporters used data produced by OpenET, which
computes values for evapotranspiration, or the amount of water that is consumed by a crop,
by analyzing multispectral imagery from NASA’s
Evapotranspiration represents about two-thirds of the water delivered to farmers, with the
last third draining off of fields or seeping into the ground. But the type of crop and the
type of soil matter. For example, sandy soils hold less water than heavier soils and need
more water to irrigate the same crop, and perennial crops (like alfalfa) tend to use more
water applied to a field than seasonal vegetables. To account for this, reporters used
irrigation district data detailing the soil type for each field, as well as the district’s
“consumptive use fractions,” which estimate how much water a certain crop in a certain soil
would consume, relative to its evapotranspiration, during a growing season.
Many farmers participate in programs that pay them to install more efficient irrigation
systems and otherwise modify fields to use less water. The Imperial Irrigation District
hasn’t finished calculating how much water farmers saved last year, so ProPublica and The
Desert Sun used the agency’s historical data on the water conservation program and applied
it to what farmers reported they would implement on certain fields. This yielded an estimate
of how much water could be conserved on each field over the course of 2022, which we
subtracted to produce our final figures.
Accuracy and Caveats
The figures provided are estimates, and real water use by individual farmers may differ.
One reason is that the main input to determine a field’s consumptive use fraction depends on
identifying the specific crop grown on each field. We did not obtain records from the
Imperial Irrigation District showing precisely which crop was grown where and when, so we
relied on a U.S.
Department of Agriculture’s Cropland Data Layer to identify crops grown in 2022.
That data identifies which crop is most likely to have been grown on each 30-meter square of
land based on analysis of satellite imagery, and it assigns a score for how confident it is
that the crop is correctly identified. When that confidence score was low, we used the California Department of
Water Resources Statewide Crop Mapping database (2021 provisional). Additionally,
the irrigation district reported what farmers planned to grow on some fields in 2022 through
its On-Farm Efficiency Conservation Program. That data was used to correct the identified
crop when it disagreed with the district’s data.
Incorrect crop classification would cause a field’s estimated water use to vary according to
the consumptive use fraction. For example, a field with evapotranspiration of 10 acre-feet
in a given month would yield an estimate of 27 acre-feet applied to the field if it was
classified as lettuce, but only 15 acre-feet if classified as sudan grass, a common summer
cover crop. For that reason, fields classified as growing vegetables and leafy greens may be
overestimated for some months if satellite sensing and records don’t accurately reflect
crops switching during the year. Most of the acreage in question, however, does not see
multiple plantings of distinct crops over the course of a year.
Figures may also vary depending on how accurately all of the inputs described above portray a
farmer’s actual practices on a particular field, given that the estimates are based on
averages for certain conditions. In cases when the crop identified disagreed with common
practices in the region, such as a leafy green growing in the summer, the district’s average
consumptive use fraction was used for that field instead.
Taken all together, the ProPublica and Desert Sun estimates closely match the total water
deliveries to agricultural users reported by the Imperial Irrigation District. Our estimates
add up to about 2,372,000 acre-feet delivered by the district to fields in 2022. The
district reported 2,369,000 acre-feet delivered in 2022 to agricultural users, about a 3,000
acre-foot, or 0.1%, difference across the entire valley.
Several experts, including Jay Famiglietti, who uses NASA satellite data to track global
water depletion, told us our methodology was sound.
“[The analysis is] very solid, and it’s very physically based. It’s probably the best you’re
going to do without direct access to data from IID,” Famiglietti said. “I don’t think that I
could do a better job.”
Correction, Nov. 10, 2023: The story originally misidentified where Jay
Famiglietti works. He is at Arizona State University, not the University of Arizona.
Nat Lash is a news applications
developer at ProPublica.
Janet Wilson is the
senior environment reporter at The Desert Sun and a 2022-23 Stanford Lane Center Western