Conflict of Interest Questions Surround Palo Verde Farmers

For the past twelve years, farmers in the Palo Verde Valley near the Colorado River have been getting paid not to grow on certain parts of their land so that the water can be shipped to a number of cities across Southern California. Now, recently-obtained documents are shedding light on just how lucrative this deal has become for the farmers -- some of whom, it turns out, voted to approve the program in 2004.

Records released by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California show the agency has paid millions of dollars to the biggest landowners in the area, including several board members of the Palo Verde Irrigation District who originally voted to approve the deal in 2004.

All seven current members of the Palo Verde Irrigation District’s Board of Trustees have farmland enrolled in the land-fallowing program and have been receiving payments for the land they leave dry each year.

The Desert Sun obtained the documents from the Metropolitan Water District under the California Public Records Act.

The Board insists there is no conflict here. As one landowner put it, once you factor in the expenses of running the farm and the costs of limiting production, “no one’s getting rich off this program.”

But open government advocate and First Amendment Coalition member Peter Scheer has concerns.

“The problem with the Palo Verde Irrigation District is its very structure. It is a public entity controlled by the same business interests that the entity regulates,” said Scheer. “That means the people who run the district have a financial stake in nearly every action the District takes. The District is set up to serve not the public interest, but the private business interests of members. The two are not necessarily the same.”