How the Desert Gets Water, Imperial Irrigation and Coachella Valley Water Districts

Carmela Karcher

The Colorado River provides water to seven states in the western part of the country and serves about 40 million people, including Southern California.

But as of Tuesday, the Bureau of Reclamation is urging three major water districts, including the Imperial Irrigation and Coachella Valley Water Districts, to cut back by mid-August.

So, how does a desert even get its water in the first place?

It all starts at Lake Mead in Nevada where the water then flows through the Colorado River into the Imperial Dam, located north of Yuma.


Here’s how it works for the Imperial Irrigation District (IID).


“It delivers raw Colorado River water to its customers,” Public Information Officer for IID, Robert Schettler, explained. “So 97% of that water goes to farms, large agricultural users, the other 3% goes to cities and industries. It’s a water delivery system that’s essentially based on gravity flow. There’s very little pumping. So it’s coming down the river by gravity. We dam it up at the dam, we sifted through our dam structures through the All American Canal and it flows throughout the valley by gravity.”

The Colorado River is the only source of water for all of Imperial County, making conservation efforts even more essential.

“I know people want water conservation, and IID already is doing a lot of water conservation,” Schettler continued. “Imperial County is one of the highest agricultural producers in California, if not the nation. So unless none of us want to eat anymore, we need to be paying attention to the water issue.”

With the mid-August deadline fast approaching, IID has ideas in mind of how they will increase their regulations.

“The Board of Directors has been discussing a plan where it would put all of our water users on a water budget, basically,” Schettler said. “It’s called an Equitable Distribution Plan. It gets a little complicated, but the overview is that everybody who has water right to the field will get a certain portion and they have to live with that for the year. We don’t have groundwater and we don’t have the ocean. That’s our only source. So obviously, we’re protective of it. And we want to manage it as best we can.”


Here’s how it works for the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD).


So they divert water from the All American Canal,” Coachella Valley Water District’s Communication Specialist, Lorraine Garcia, said. “And they send it to the customers who have allocations for water for Colorado River water. And so the Coachella Valley Water District receives that water through the Coachella Canal.”

But the Colorado River water isn’t just used for drinking, it’s used partially for replenishing the aquifer located underground.

We are lucky enough here in the Coachella Valley to have a groundwater basin also known as an aquifer,” Garcia continued. “An aquifer holds sand, gravel and there’s a clay layer. That’s all underneath us. But, it also holds water between all those gravel and sand pieces, so it also acts as a natural filter for water. We get some really good high quality water from our groundwater basin. We also have wells that we drill about 1,200 feet down into the ground, and they pump water out of the ground and then they go through a system on demand to homes and businesses. So that when you turn on your tap that water is coming from a well that pumped it out of the ground.”

And with their deadline coming up, CVWD continues to ask its customers to conserve.

We do want to conserve that water, especially during dry years when the state in the rest of the Southwest is going through continuous dry years,” Garcia said. “Here at Coachella Valley Water District, we always ask customers, all customer types, to conserve water. “

Again, federal officials are pressing for another reduction agreement by mid-August.

We will keep you updated once those agreements start to develop and what that means for our water in the desert.

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