Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Henry Martinez of the Imperial Irrigation District: Supporting Agriculture and Solving Problems

The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) has been providing water and energy services to inland Southern California for 110 years. A top user of Colorado River water and a top agricultural producer, it faces many of the same issues as other arid-region irrigation districts: drought, water supply, and infrastructure maintenance. However, it also must deal with the unique challenges related to the dropping water levels in the highly saline Salton Sea, including air pollution caused when wind stirs up the salty soil in the exposed lakebed, or playa. In this interview, IID General Manager Henry Martinez tells us about the district’s impressive services, the productive agriculture and large economy it supports, and how it is addressing the challenges of the Salton Sea. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell our readers about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Henry Martinez: I have been in the utility business for over 45 years. I have worked for large public and private utilities in both the water and energy departments. I came to IID a little over 3 years ago as an energy manager. At the time I arrived, the idea was that I would run the energy department as part of the district’s services for customers. I became the general manager of IID when my boss Kevin Kelley retired. I will have been general manager for 3 years at the end of 2021. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about IID’s history and current services. 

Henry Martinez: The district celebrated 110 years of existence on July 25, 2021. It was formed to provide water services for Imperial County. Later, we became a public power provider, extending energy services into the eastern Coachella Valley and into the Riverside County area. We don’t provide water services in the Coachella Valley, since it has its own district, but we provide energy. We provide electricity to 155,000 electric meters and irrigate about half a million acres of crops, serving upward of 5,200 farm accounts. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the top crops in your area? 

Henry Martinez: Grass and hay are among the highest ones, but we have a whole list of crops, including large field crops, such as alfalfa, Bermuda grass, kleingrass, Sudan grass, sugar beets, and wheat; and garden crops, such as broccoli, carrots, lemons, lettuce, mixed citrus, mixed vegetables, onions, spinach, sweet corn, and plenty more. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the district’s top issues today? 

An IID vehicle stands next to a gate on the Eucalyptus Canal.

Henry Martinez: Our only source of water is the Colorado River, and we have contracts with the federal government to receive water from it. We have one of the oldest and most senior rights on the Colorado. As you’ve been reading over the last 20 years, there has been a continuous drought in the Colorado basin, leading the storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell to decline. At this point, we’re looking at how the hydrology will develop in the future and asking what effects it will have on our water supply and our water transfers to San Diego and the Coachella Valley. Discussions are occurring with the rightsholders on the Colorado River and the Bureau of Reclamation about the long-term forecast and what decisions we may have to make over the next couple of years if the shortage continues. Our senior rights give us a good amount of security, but water rights can only get us so far if there’s no water available, which is our greater concern. This makes us cognizant of water use and has led us to make major efforts to conserve water in the irrigation arena. We incentivize farmers to use water more efficiently for their crops by compensating them for the water that is conserved. 

Another issue is the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea has been affected by the drought and by changes in water use and conservation. Irrigation has accelerated the decline of the water level in the Salton Sea, which is already declining due to evaporation. The rate of evaporation now exceeds inflows. That results in greater exposure of the playa surrounding the Salton Sea, particularly in its southern part. Soil that was formerly covered with water is now exposed to the open air, and coupled with our wind conditions, we end up with air quality concerns. Further, the sea itself is highly saline, which raises questions about whether it is sustainable for wildlife habitat and fisheries. 

On the energy side, one issue is that our 99‑year agreement to serve the Coachella Valley expires in 2033. When the contract ends, it opens the door for other energy providers to step in. There have also been proposals in the California Legislature for representatives from the Coachella Valley to be added to IID’s board. That has become a major concern for us. We’re currently following a bill that was introduced by Assembly Member Chad Mayes, who represents a portion of Coachella Valley in the Palm Springs area, that proposes adding one additional ex officio member to our board. Also, the bill includes a provision for an analysis of how best to secure the future of energy service in the Coachella Valley after the current contract ends. 

On the positive side, we’ve seen an interest in lithium development and in the development of additional geothermal energy in our service territory. The California Public Utilities Commission approved the procurement of 1,000 megawatts of new geothermal energy. That will open a lot of opportunities for geothermal development on land that the district owns. It was also recently announced that General Motors is partnering with a local developer, Control Thermal Resources, to develop lithium hydroxide in the Imperial Valley as a raw mineral for storage batteries. We expect major investments in the valley that will change the whole landscape of labor and infrastructure in the region. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the conservation efforts you are carrying out? 

Henry Martinez: In 2015, we set up a program to incentivize farmers to invest in more elaborate systems, such as sprinklers, pumpback systems, and recovery systems, in order to minimize their use of water while maintaining the efficiency of their crop production. By putting significant effort and money into the programs, the district has been able to conserve quite a bit of water that would otherwise have been applied to the fields and then ended up as runoff to the Salton Sea. Again, that is a double-edged sword, because it reduces the already low inflows to the Salton Sea. This year, we authorized more funding to compensate the farmers for the conservation of water. We use the water that is conserved for transfers to urban areas. We also work with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to store some of that water in its system or behind Hoover Dam. Those partnership efforts help ensure that water is not wasted. Crop production has been maintained at the same level as before or higher, and the farming community continues to be healthy. 

Sprinkler irrigation in IID’s service area.

We’re also seeing the evolution of solar fields. We have excellent conditions here for solar energy production, and there is a trend of retiring farmland and converting it into solar panel farms. That indirectly conserves water, too. The downside is that the agricultural production of our area is reduced. 

You may recall that in 2019, the federal government and the Colorado River contractors from the seven states of the Colorado basin signed the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). IID did not participate in that agreement. The main reason we did not participate is that the compact did not acknowledge the detrimental effects it would have on the Salton Sea. Because that was not recognized in the agreement, our board decided not to participate in the conservation program. The DCP expires in 2026, so there has been an accelerated effort to begin addressing the provisions that may have to be implemented to maintain critical water availability for those who contract with the federal government for water. Discussions on those issues have already started; we cannot wait until 2026 to start formulating plans. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to other water users who depend on the Colorado River? 

Henry Martinez: One of our mantras is that the Salton Sea is linked to the Colorado River. Whenever decisions are made regarding water use, water elevations, water deliveries, conservation plans, and regulations on water availability, we must keep in mind their effects on the Salton Sea and the risk that they will cause it to deteriorate further. Because of the Salton Sea’s relatively remote location, most people do not know about it and its environmental problems. We live in this area; we experience and see the conditions here. Our basic message is, “Don’t forget the Salton Sea when you are making plans for the allocation of Colorado River water resources.” We must address this issue concurrently with the allocation of Colorado River water. 

Irrigation Leader: Are there efforts underway to reverse the decline in the Salton Sea’s water level or to address its salinity? 

Henry Martinez: After a certain level of funding, the State of California has a responsibility to address these issues. Secretary Wade Crowfoot of the California Natural Resources Agency has taken a leadership role in seeking state and federal funding. IID also advocates for federal funding to address the problems of the Salton Sea. There are also projects that have begun addressing those environmental concerns on a smaller, local scale. One project that broke ground early in 2021 is the Spatial Conservation Habitat Program. Its purpose is to create a habitat for wildlife and mitigate dust emissions through the shallow flooding of certain areas of exposed playa. We have worked with the State of California on other programs to reduce emissions and air pollution by treating parts of the playa with vegetation and furrowing to minimize the air quality problems that arise when high winds come across the sea. There’s a lot more to do regarding salinity and other water quality issues. The state is evaluating proposals, including proposals to import water from the Sea of Cortez or the Pacific Ocean. The state works with the University of California, Santa Cruz, to determine whether the proposals are feasible ways to add water to the sea to stabilize it or improve its quality. There’s also a proposal to create what is called a perimeter lake. The perimeter lake would push the water toward the shoreline and create a smaller, more saline body of water in the center of the sea itself. The idea is to cover the shoreline by creating berms inside the sea, thus reducing air pollution issues while maintaining the shoreline in a condition that is more ecologically and environmentally usable for wildlife and recreation. At this point, the State of California bears the responsibility for coming up with a solution for the Salton Sea. A large part of the problem is simply based on water quantity. Between drought and evaporation, water is rare. Solving this problem will cost quite a bit, but we need to fundamentally address the environmental problems of the sea. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to Congress? 

Henry Martinez: Congress and the federal government own property on the shoreline and the footprint of the Salton Sea. IID, the State of California, and various tribes also own land at the Salton Sea. We all have a responsibility as landowners to deal with its issues. Our long-standing concern has been that the federal government has been somewhat passive about contributing to a solution for the Salton Sea. Recently, we have had good support from Congressman Raul Ruiz and Congressman Juan Vargas, both of whom have introduced bills in Congress to provide funding to address the Salton Sea’s issues. However, those bills must be passed by both the House and the Senate and ultimately be signed by the president. They have a long way to go, but there is finally some movement in Washington, DC, to address these issues. Senator Dianne Feinstein has been tracking this issue for quite some time, and now, Senator Alex Padilla has also started paying more attention to the situation here. Congressman Raúl Grijalva from Arizona is the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and has held hearings regarding the Salton Sea. We had the first congressional hearing in 23 years in September 2020. On a positive note, we’ve seen more activity in the last 2 years to address the Salton Sea than we’ve seen in the past. We hope to see that attention and interest on the part of Congress continue. Elected officials in San Francisco and Sacramento will also continue addressing this issue, despite those efforts being dormant for quite some time. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future of IID? 

Sprinkler irrigation in IID’s service area.

Henry Martinez: My vision is to continue to maintain the flow of water into our district, which is one of the most productive irrigation districts in the United States. We want to maintain that leadership position and to maintain the productivity of the land, which has been built over the last 110 years. One thing that will require is being smart with water use. On the energy side, there have been huge changes in the electric business. It is getting more complicated to run an electric utility, particularly with all the changing policies and incentives in California, such as the renewable energy standards and the accelerating retirement of older gas- and coal-fired generation plants. 

Another goal we have is to introduce new technology into our systems to make them more resilient, effective, and efficient and to keep our rates as low as possible. That is particularly important here in the Imperial Valley, because air conditioning is a necessity. Temperatures frequently reach 115 or 120 degrees during the summer and do not cool down in the evening. Energy costs can be a big burden for our customers, particularly given the unemployment rate in the county, which is one of the highest in the United States. 

To continue to provide our critical services, we need the guidance of the board, and we will need to make intelligent investments, to pay attention to the basics of running the district efficiently, and to make the right decisions on a timely basis. Our services are necessary to maintain the valley’s economy and the livelihood of our customers. Our operations also need to be effective and sustainable for the long term. The district’s objectives are to be a major contributor to the economy of our service territory and to supply modern services to our water and energy customers. 

Irrigation Leader: Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Henry Martinez: We appreciate the work of our agricultural community and how it is stepping up through on-farm water conservation and efficiency programs. The farmers are not sacrificing the productivity of the land just to conserve water. We are sustaining or increasing the level of production relative to the previous irrigation methodologies. Conservation doesn’t mean you don’t plant anything and fallow the land. We are working to be sustainable. 

Henry Martinez is the general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District. He can be contacted at (760) 339‑9477.