Desert farmers defend maligned alfalfa production

Source By Caleb Hampton

March 22, 2023

Bales of alfalfa hay sit under the sun by an Imperial Valley roadside near Calipatria. The high-protein forage crop covers roughly a third of the valley’s farmland and is harvested in the region year-round.

The Imperial Valley, a vast grid of greens, browns and yellows, produces dozens of crops. But two visual features define the valley: open channels carrying water from the Colorado River and blocks of hay that tower above the irrigation channels.

Forage crops such as alfalfa, sudangrass and bermudagrass cover more than half the Imperial Valley’s farmland. “From the growers’ perspective, alfalfa is their best crop,” said Ali Montazar, University of California Cooperative Extension irrigation and water management advisor for Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties.

But as the Colorado River dwindles, environmentalists and competing water users scorn farmers for growing the thirsty crop in a drought-stricken region. “It’s simple math,” High Country News reported last year. “Growing less hay is the only way to keep the river’s water system from collapsing.”

Much of the criticism of California’s alfalfa production focuses on the crop’s export to countries such as China, Japan and Saudi Arabia. In recent years, California has exported around 30% of its hay, with several estimates showing a higher proportion from the Imperial Valley is sold abroad. Some critics liken it to shipping “virtual water” out of a drought zone and overseas.

It is true that alfalfa needs lots of water—more than almost any crop in California. However, growers say criticism of its cultivation in the desert region overlooks important context around the nuances of crop planning, the globalized food system and alfalfa’s role in nutrition and food security. The crop is also a key contributor to the Imperial Valley’s economy.

The region’s geography is ideal for alfalfa production. Because the Imperial Valley gets year-round sun, farmers can harvest alfalfa up to 10 times per year, yielding twice as much hay as many other growing regions. “We probably have the highest yield and highest quality alfalfa in the world,” said Larry Cox, who farms in the Imperial Valley.


California forking out $34 million to clean up New and Tijuana rivers. SAM RIBAKOFF / February 2, 2023

Border watersheds have been plagued for years by trash, sewage, agricultural and industrial runoff and other pollutants.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — The State Water Resources Control Board will spend $34 million for six projects to improve the water quality of the New River and the Tijuana River along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The New River starts south of the city of Mexicali, and runs through Calexico on the U.S. side of the border and through Imperial County to the Salton Sea. The Tijuana River runs from Baja California into San Diego.

Both rivers are heavily polluted by sewage, trash, industrial and agricultural waste, and other sediment and pollutants.

“The water quality in our border watersheds have been degraded by sewage, trash and other pollutants for decades, posing a constant threat to the health of people, wildlife, and our economies,” Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the state water board, said in a statement Thursday. “This funding comes at a critical time, as these challenges are exacerbated by extreme weather patterns in our changed climate. These projects will help improve water quality for our border communities while we continue our collaboration at the local, state and federal levels, and with our Mexican partners, to protect our water resources.”

Those projects include $18 million for the city of Calexico and the California Department of Water Resources to install a trash screen, a system to pump water back into the river after it’s been treated at the Calexico Wastewater Treatment Plant, and other infrastructure to prevent against erosion on the New River.

Another project will be headed by San Diego County, which will use more than $4 million to build a sediment and trash control basin and do dredging to remove sediment, trash and debris at the Tijuana River Pilot Channel and Smuggler’s Gulch, and area the announcement by the board describes as a place where pollutants on the Tijuana River accumulate, and through a series of gates, is used to divert trash from the river from reaching the Pacific Ocean.

San Diego County will receive $2 million to remediate an illegal dumping ground that has altered the course of the Tijuana River and to restore the floodplain and habitat around the property.

The Rural Community Assistance Corporation will receive $4.7 million to build a floating trash boom system that can be used during the stormy season in the concrete-lined portion of the Tijuana River Channel. FULL ARTICLE

The Colorado River is overused and shrinking. Inside the crisis transforming the Southwest



The Colorado River begins as melting snow, trickling from forested peaks and coursing in streams that gather in the meadows and valleys of the Rocky Mountains.

Like arteries, its major tributaries take shape across Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, coming together in a great river like no other — a river that travels more than 1,400 miles and has defined the rise of the American Southwest over the last century.

Water diverted from the river has enabled agriculture to spread across 5 million acres of farmland and has fed the growth of cities from Denver to Los Angeles, supplying about 40 million people. Harnessing the river’s bounty has provided the foundation for life and the economy across seven states and northern Mexico.

White surfaces along the banks show previous water levels in Lake Powell on May 16. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times) 

But the region has for years depended too heavily on the river, taking more than its flows can support. And in recent years, the river’s water-generating heart in the Rocky Mountains has begun to fail.

The Colorado River can no longer withstand the unbridled thirst of the arid West.

A century ago, the signing of the Colorado River Compact divided the water among the states. The agreement established a system that overpromised what the river could provide. That system, after years of warnings from scientists and insufficient efforts to adapt, is now colliding with the reality of a river that is overused and shrinking.

In the last 23 years, as rising temperatures fueled by the burning of fossil fuels have intensified the worst drought in centuries, the flow of the Colorado has declined about 20%.

Reservoirs have dropped to record-low levels, and the shortage continues to worsen. Scarcity is pushing the region toward a water reckoning.


Will Baja California ever build a desalination plant?


For more than a decade, officials in Baja California talked about building a large, desalination plant in a beach town near Tijuana. In 2016, state officials finalized a plan only to shelve it four years later, citing its high cost. The energy-intensive technology works by removing impurities from seawater.

Mexico has other, small desalination plants elsewhere in the state and country. Roberto Salmón helped oversee U.S.-Mexico treaties on borders and rivers as Mexico’s representative to the International Boundary and Water Commission between 2009 and 2020.

Exterior view on tanks of desalination plant Desaladora de Carboneras in Carboneras, Spain, 31 March 2009. Tanks filled with sand pre-filter salt water from the Meditarranean Sea that is later purified. The plant can provide potable water to 500,000 people, currently it runs on 25 per cent of its capacity. Photo: Bodo Marks

He said a desalination plant would help Tijuana considerably. “But discussions had been going on ever since I came into the commission,” Salmón said, “and there is no plant yet.”

A single aqueduct that crosses the state, including a rugged 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) mountain pass, brings Colorado River water into Tijuana. “It’s a one-source city,” Salmón said. Officials and companies have similarly talked about using treated recycled wastewater to boost the city’s water supply for years, but the city has little to show for it.

State Recommends Change to New River Project Bid

City Council Approves General Budget with Slight Changes

JULIO MORALESON AUGUST 11, 2022 – Holtville Tribune

Calexico, CA –

A last-minute recommendation by state officials will prompt slight changes to, and potentially lower the cost of construction for, the city’s New River Improvement Project request for proposals.

The recommendation by the California Department of Water Resources called for a change in the type of material to be used for the estimated $32 million project.

The state’s request was submitted to the city a few hours before the City Council was scheduled to potentially approve the project going out to bid during a special meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 10.

The council ultimately voted unanimously to approve the invitation for bids, pending the recommended changes.

“They’re not really big changes, just materials,” City Manager Esperanza Colio Warren said on Thursday, Aug. 11.

The project’s request for proposals will now be resubmitted to the city’s contracted engineer to make the recommended changes. The opening date for bids was tentatively scheduled to be Sept. 6, according to the resolution’s backup documents.

The request for proposals also differs from the one that the city had previously opened for bidding. The current proposal breaks the project’s construction into two phases, whereas construction under the former RFP was to be undertaken in just one phase.

The division of the New River Improvement Project into two separate phases was prompted by a recommendation by Colio Warren during the council’s special meeting on July 28.

During that meeting, the council approved her request to reject the sole $41.7 million bid the city had received because it exceeded the $23.7 million currently available for the project.

While Colio Warren had clarified then that additional funds for construction were anticipated to be awarded from the state, she further suggested splitting the construction project into different components.

Phase 1 of the project will install a trash screen to remove debris from the river as it enters the United States from Mexico, as well as install a pumpback system that will divert the river’s water to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, where it will be cleaned and returned to the river basin to produce a “freshwater” stream.

Phase 2 will install a 6-foot bypass pipe to encase the waterway between the Second Street bridge to where the river reaches the All-American Canal, as well as install erosion control measures at the end of the bypass pipe, the bid document stated.

Prior to the approval of the request for proposals, council member Camilo Garcia sought assurances that the project, once completed, would have the necessary funds to maintain it.

“It would be a disservice to build it and then not be able to sustain it,” Garcia said.

City Manager Colio Warren explained that in 2017 the city, county and the Imperial Irrigation District had finalized a memorandum of understanding that obligated each entity to contribute $50,000 annually for 20 years to maintain the project, once operational.

The city was initially awarded $28 million for the New River project, consisting of $18 million from the state’s 2020-2021 general fund and $10 million from the 2018 Proposition 68 water bond co-authored by Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella.

The New River is shown where it crosses the international border from Mexico into the United States in Calexico. Efforts are underway by the city of Calexico to build out a $28 million project that will cleanup the river in the Calexico area. | KENNY ROBERTSON PHOTO

Annual Budget Approved, Again

In an effort to eliminate any confusion surrounding the status of the city’s fiscal year 2022-2023 budget, the City Council approved a finalized version during its special meeting.

Prior to its action on Wednesday, the council had approved a series of resolutions over the course of two separate meetings in June and July that had allowed the city to make expenditures while the council considered amendments to the proposed budget.

Yet there appeared to be some confusion about whether a continuing resolution the council had approved on June 30 had essentially approved the proposed budget, which it had, said City Manager Colio Warren.

So, to make the matter clear, the resolution unanimously approved on Wednesday reaffirmed that prior approval and allowed for some updates to be included.

One of the updates to the approximately $162 million FY 2022-23 budget that generated the most discussion during the meeting was the deferment of a $85,000 water capital fund project.

That project had called for the transition to a different chlorination system at the city’s water treatment plant.

Currently the plant’s chlorination system is operated with gas instead of a liquid, which has presented a concern for the facility’s personnel, Colio Warren said.  

But before any changes are made to the chlorination system, Colio Warren told the council that the city should first apply for state grant funds that would allow for an engineering evaluation of the plant’s overall operations. Such an evaluation would identify any operational issues, as well as recommend potential solutions.  

“I don’t feel that I should make a decision without an engineer reviewing the project,” she told the council.

Council member Garcia questioned the need for any system changes at the water treatment plant, which during a recent tour had left h

Calexico celebrates $28M in New River funding

By Kassandra MendozaJul 11, 2022

The desert Review

CALEXICO —  After a decade of immense effort, the New River Project received $28 million in funding to begin the first phase of restoration said to bring public health safety and environmental justice to Calexico, Mexicali, and Baja California, at a press conference at the Women’s Improvement Club in Calexico July 7.  

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and Senator Ben Hueso, along with California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld and his team, were welcomed to The City of Calexico by the Mayor of Calexico, Javier Moreno. 

“We are incredibly proud, the Governor of California talks about this project with a huge amount of interest and affection because we are actually doing it, we are not talking about doing it, we aren’t thinking about doing it, we are putting shovel to the ground, putting dollars in the bank and we are getting this done,” stated California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld.

It was an evening of recognition to all the individuals who have collaborated in bringing justice to an environmental issue that is known to be one the most polluted rivers in the United States. 

 “It is so long overdue that Calexico receive the necessary resources to get this project on the way, we’ve been around for over 35 years and it is only around this time that our senators and assembly members have had a front row seat to be able to advocate for ourselves and I would want to thank them for their support,” stated Executive Director of Comite Civico del Valle Luis Olmedo.

Government Representatives from Baja California were present to show their appreciation in receiving these funds and commitment to the projects laying ahead. 

“We can’t solve this without Mexicali being a part of this project, this is a small town of 40,000 people. We have a bigger city of a million plus being affected by the river. If you drive through Mexicali you smell the new river, it’s a pretty big issue for them day in and day out. These borders are arbitrary but the community is one,” expressed Blumenfeld.

Mónica Juliana Vega Aguirre Secretary of Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo Sustentable in Baja California spoke on the importance of collaborating with California Governor Newsom to address this environmental issue. 

“The work to be done needs to come from both sides of the border. The citizens from both sides of the border are our family, friends and neighbors and it’s important for all of us to be doing this public service to protect the lives of this community,” emphasized Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia. 

Every speaker at the conference highlighted gratitude to all individuals who made a collaborative effort to obtain these funds for the beginning phases of the New River and Tijuana River improvement project. 

 “The New River Project is divided in 3 phases. Phase number 1 involves a trash rack clean up that will prevent the water contamination, the second portion of the project is the encasement of the water, the third phase is where the water meets with the waste water treatment plant. what that does is it dilutes the contamination of the water from that point the water is going to be pumped out to continue with the stream of water all the way to the Salton Sea area,” explained Calexico City Manager, Esperanza Colio. 

A check for $28 million from Senator Ben Hueso and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia was presented to The City of Calexico to begin the first phase of the project. 

“This is a very important topic to the State of California hopefully with our success we can get some response from the Federal Government as well. We need the Federal Government to step up to the plate with a lot of the border issues and water issues here in Imperial County,” stated Senator Ben Hueso. 

Army Corps of Engineers to help with New River

Holtville Tribune

The Imperial County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to bring in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to create a preliminary engineering report to develop a project to improve water quality at the New River, which will allow the county to access additional funding for the improvements.  For decades, sewage, waste, industrial chemicals and other toxic pollutants coming out of Mexicali have contaminated the New River and the surrounding watershed, causing the New River to be considered one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. … ”  Continue reading at the Holtville Tribune here: Army Corps of Engineers to help with New River

$100M New River funding legislation to address water quality problems at California-Mexico border rivers

Source – KYMA

Assemblymember Garcia is calling on community members to help advocate in support of the New River funding legislation – News 11’s Vanessa Gongora reports

IMPERIAL COUNTY, Calif. (KYMA, KECY) – The California State Assembly recently approved Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia’s California-Mexico Border River Restoration, AB 2248.

According to Garcia, the legislation would allocate $100 million to address water quality problems at California-Mexico border rivers, with $50 million each for the New River, in Calexico and the Tijuana River, in San Diego.

“Our $100 million funding request for New River and Tijuana River improvement projects are a matter of public health and environmental justice urgency for our shared border communities. For too long, residents living alongside our borders have faced disproportionate consequences of cross-border pollution, and we have been fighting for the resources needed to rectify these disparities,” stated Assemblymember Garcia.

He says the New River, which runs from Mexicali, Baja California, and Calexico, California into the Salton Sea, is one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. It also remains one of the largest public health hazards in Imperial County.

The legislative process is halfway there. The bill will next go before Senate committees for approval.

The bill states it would require expenditures of the funding to be consistent with the work of the California Environmental Protection Agency Border Affairs Program to build collaboration with the federal government, the Republic of Mexico, the State of Baja California, and the Cities of Tijuana and Mexicali.

The bill would also require the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Environmental Protection Agency to consult and collaborate with the Legislature on cross-border collaboration and the expenditure of the funding.

Assemblymember Garcia is also leading a corresponding $100 million budget request for border rivers with the same equal split for improvement projects at the Tijuana River and New River.

This river is too toxic to touch, and people live right next to it

The New River is filled with sewage and toxic pollution. Despite more than $90 million spent, the Mexican and U.S. governments have failed to clean it up.

Source Desert Sun

By Ian James | Photos by Zoe Meyers, The Desert Sun

The Río Nuevo flows north from Mexico into the United States, passing through a gap in the border fence. 

The murky green water reeks of sewage and carries soapsuds, pieces of trash and a load of toxic chemicals from Mexicali, a city filled with factories that manufacture products from electronics to auto parts.

For people trying to cross illegally into the United States, the river offers a route to try to slip past Border Patrol agents. But the water is so polluted that people who wade in get itchy rashes or sores, and anyone who gets even a splash in the mouth becomes violently ill.

Just north of the border in Calexico, the New River is treated like a toxic waste site. On the edge of its trash-strewn ravine, a yellow sign is planted in the dusty soil with a skull-and-crossbones symbol and the warning: “CONTAMINATED SOIL AND NEW RIVER WATER, KEEP OUT!!”

For people who live next to the river, the odor can be so overpowering that it gives them headaches. Their eyes water and their nasal passages sting. To escape the stench, residents avoid spending time outdoors in their yards.

“All the chemicals, all the waste that comes from the factories there in Mexicali, I can’t tell you what it contains because I don’t know,” said Ernestina Calderón, who lives on a street next to the river in Calexico. “But I’m 100 percent sure that they’re chemicals that are harmful for your health.”

A decade ago, Calderón survived a fight with stomach cancer. Her adult son had cancer in his lymph nodes and survived. 

Several of Calderón’s neighbors — she counted six people — have died over the years of different types of cancer, including lung, pancreatic and stomach cancer. Other neighbors suffer from illnesses including asthma and thyroid disorders, which can be triggered or worsened by pollution. 

Residents have been complaining for years that living next to the river is making them sick. They’ve demanded government agencies clean up the sewage and industrial waste. Yet despite those calls for help, the river is still filled with high levels of bacteria and toxic chemicals. 

In an investigation into the pollution that afflicts the city of Mexicali and nearby border communities, The Desert Sun found that the New River is plagued by harmful chemicals and heavy metals, increasingly frequent sewage spills and a lack of funding to fix those problems — despite recognition among government regulators on both sides of the border that the river requires bigger cleanup efforts. 

During the past two decades, the U.S. and Mexican governments have spent more than $91 million on jointly funded upgrades of Mexicali’s sewer system. But the rapid growth of the city, with its proliferating maquiladoras, has outpaced the sewer infrastructure. Spills of raw sewage into the river are on the rise and becoming a major problem, and the wastewater plant that discharges into the New River doesn’t disinfect the water or remove chemicals or heavy metals.  

Mexican government agencies are charged with regulating releases of industrial waste from the maquiladoras, and companies are supposed to treat wastewater to meet the country’s standards before discharging it into the sewer system. But the factories face questionable oversight and minimal enforcement. And Mexican government records show companies reported discharging wastewater containing some of the same toxic pollutants that are turning up in water tests in the New River. 

Those tests of water and sediment samples by California regulators show the river is one of the most polluted in the state, with high levels of heavy metals including lead, copper and mercury.

There are also toxic chemicals including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and byproducts of the banned pesticide DDT.

Along the river, there are still signs of life, including egrets and herons that forage on the banks. Yet as Border Patrol agents scan the river looking for migrants, they sometimes see masses of dead fish floating — signs of the dangers in the dark, cloudy water.