Salton Sea Countdown to Collapse

News And Nontechnical Articles

Salton Sea Home Page

Farmers Won't Buy Pollution Alarmism

By Gary Polakovic
The Press-Enterprise

Lloyd Heger is a farmer and a self-described environmentalist.

A DDT salesman when he was younger, he no longer uses herbicides or pesticides on his 440-acre organic ranch tucked near the foot of the Superstition Hills in Imperial County. Doves, mallards and largemouth bass thrive in ponds he built. And he farms in a part of the desert where water-saving irrigation is preached like religion.

Like most growers, Heger, 67, believes he has a special relationship with the soil, water and seasons that makes love for the environment as natural as the squash and melons he produces.

Farmer Lloyd Heger is framed by plants on one of his fields

Steve Medd / The Press Enterprise  

Stephen Sedam-Stone/The Press Enterprise    

But mention Salton Sea pollution, and the affable red-headed farmer tightens his posture and fixes his pale blue eyes into a sharp stare from beneath the shadow of his straw hat.

"The pollution we're putting into the Salton Sea is minimal," he declared. Most farmers in the Imperial and Coachella valleys are of the same mind. They doubt their waste water has much to do with the contamination that is overwhelming the Salton Sea. Instead, they blame politicians, upstream Colorado river users and Mexico, which dumps waste water in the New River that has its terminus in the sea.

Agricultural wastes have been dumped into the Salton Sea for almost a century. Yet if a cleanup is ever required, farmers do not think they should pay.

"That would be a hard sell," said Don Cox, a veteran alfalfa grower in Imperial County and member of the state Colorado River Basin regional Water Quality Control Board, the agency charged with protecting water quality in the Salton Sea area.

Pollution in the Salton Sea is among the least of farmers' concerns.

"I used to have a list of 25 top priorities I'd tackle each day," Cox said, "Things like whiteflies, pesticide regulations, insurance, workers' comp and wondering why tomatoes sold for 10 cents a pound this year when it was 20 cents last year and they cost 880 cents a pound in the grocery store.

"...It's (Salton Sea) not on his (farmer's) worry list right now...we're in a survival mode down here right now and they have more problems to deal with than they know how," Cox said.

In the culture of agriculture, the very thought that something as wholesome as farming could be harmful to the environment borders on blasphemy.

"In this valley, agriculture is big business and you're not going to get anyone to admit there may be a problem with it," said Tracy Warner of El Centro, who slipped into Su Casa restaurant in Brawley on a muggy August night for an enchilada dinner with his wife.

Farmers see themselves as saviors, not destroyers, of the sea. Farm drains are a significant source of life-giving freshwater for the saline sea. Without agricultural runoff, the sea itself would dry up and fish and birds would perish.

Eliminating farm waste water entering the sea could halt farming on 600,000 acres -- more than 10 times the acreage idled when drains feeding tainted water to the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley were closed a decade ago.

"You can't shut off the drains or you'll kill the farming. You may as well say you're going to buy the Imperial Valley and turn it back to desert," said John Benson, whose family has farmed 4,000 acres near Westmorland since the 1960s.

To the Top