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The Planet

The Planet
December 1998 Volume 5, Number 10

on the border

'We're for Seepage'

by John Byrne Barry

Water - who gets it and how polluted it is when they get it - is at the heart of most environmental issues in California's Imperial County, which borders Mexico for 80 miles. And if there's one overriding theme that Fred Cagle wants decision-makers to keep front and center, it's looking at the big picture: What's best for the whole watershed?

So when the state of California allocated $235 million to conserve water by lining the Coachella and All-America irrigation canals, Cagle, the chair of the San Diego Chapter Water Transfer subcommittee, objected.

The water that seeps from the irrigation ditches is already being put to valuable use, he says, more valuable than fueling new San Diego suburbs. That's the likely destination for the approximately 100,000 acre-feet of "saved" water.

This water may help replenish the Salton Sea and wetlands that host migratory birds. Farmers in Mexico pump it from wells to grow their crops. The Torres Martinez Indians are also fighting for their share of it.

"We're for seepage," says Cagle. "More surface water too. Currently, water is treated as a commodity, like gas or oil, and there's little allowance for ecosystem health in the lower Colorado and the Delta."

The Salton Sea, a man-made lake in the northwest corner of the county, is slowly being poisoned by agricultural runoff from Imperial County alfalfa farms and untreated sewage and industrial waste from Mexicali.

The lake needs fresh water to dilute the high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus, salts and heavy metals.

The Salton Sea, a national wildlife refuge, has become a critical stopping place for migratory birds that used to stop along the Colorado River Delta.

The Delta is dry now as a result of water diversion and the Salton Sea, already at 235 feet below sea level, is drying up, too. Proposed water transfers to the cities could greatly accelerate this process.

Already thousands of fish and birds have died.

Cagle and allies in the Club and the Audubon Society may have given the Salton Sea a reprieve with a $300,000 hydrology study they were able to attach to the irrigation ditch funding.

"This requires that the irrigation district show where the seepage goes before they can line the canals. They have to show they aren't harming wetlands or the Salton Sea. This study will also show the losses Mexicans will sustain and clarify the water rights situation for the Torres Martinez Indians."

Cagle is also among the Club activists who participate in the binational environmental meetings that alternate between San Diego and Tijuana to discuss water allocation, pollution and other issues. "There isn't a Sierra Club in Mexico," says Cagle, "but they've got local organizations, citizens and officials in Tijuana who raise just as much unmitigated hell as we do."

For more information: Contact Fred Cagle at (619) 297-0931;

Go on to the next article, "Data Deficit"

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