WATER SECURITYThe Historic Claims That Put a Few California Farming Families First in Line for Colorado River Water

By Janet Wilson

Published 23 November 2023

Twenty families in the Imperial Valley received a whopping 386.5 billion gallons of the river’s water last year — more than three Western states. Century-old water rights guarantee that supply.

Craig Elmore’s family history is the stuff of Westerns. His grandfather, John Elmore, a poor son of a Missouri preacher, arrived in California’s Imperial Valley in 1908 and dug ditches to deliver water to homesteaders.

Thanks to his marriage to a citrus magnate’s daughter, reputed good fortune as a gambler, and business acumen, he amassed the Elmore Desert Ranch, part of roughly 12,000 acres that two branches of the family still farm.

All that land in the blazing-hot southeastern corner of California came with a huge bonanza: water from the Colorado River. In 2022, the present-day Elmores consumed an estimated 22.5 billion gallons, according to a Desert Sun and ProPublica analysis of satellite data combined with business and agricultural records. That’s almost as much as the entire city of Scottsdale, Arizona, is allotted.

That puts the Elmores in exclusive company. They are one of 20 extended families who receive fully one-seventh of the river’s flow through its lower half — a whopping 1,186,200 acre-feet, or about 386.5 billion gallons, the analysis showed.

The Colorado River system, which supplies 35 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, nearly collapsed last year. Even after a wet winter, it is dwindling due to overuse and climate change. But no matter how low its reservoirs sink, the historic claims of these families and all of Imperial County place them first in line — ahead of every state and major city — for whatever water remains.

How a handful of families and a rural irrigation district came to control so much of the West’s most valuable river is a story of geography and good timing, intermarrying and shrewd strategy, and a rich but sometimes ugly past when racist laws and wartime policies excluded farmers of color. Together, they winnowed the greatest access to these 20 clans, who today use more of the river than all of Wyoming, New Mexico, or Nevada. A vast, laser-leveled green quilt of crops covers this naturally bone-dry valley, all of it grown with Colorado River water.

The water is held “in trust” by the Imperial Irrigation District and two smaller agencies, meaning they are legally required to deliver the water to any county landowner for use on their property.

But many farmers here see the river water as virtually their private property, though nearly all acknowledge it can’t be sold apart from their land.