Agriculture Meets Urban Culture


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FOR THE FIRST TIME in the 30 years I have been dining at the Mount Signal Cafe near Calexico, it is closed when I drive into the parking lot at 9:30 on a crisp, crystal-clear Imperial Valley Sunday morning. And so I pull around back to a cluster of houses and knock at the door of Sandra Bazabal, the cafe’s proprietor, who greets me as an old friend and apologizes profusely that the restaurant is not yet open.

“We’ve never taken a holiday in 37 years, even Christmas,” Bazabal says. She and her late husband, Juan Bautista Bazabal, started the landmark Mexican restaurant in 1958. “Everyone who works here is family, so someone is always around. We open about 10:30 in the morning and close when the last customers leave.” On this particular Sunday morning, as a personal courtesy, the kitchen opens early and I am served generous helpings of scrambled eggs and chorizo sausage with homemade tortillas.

The Mount Signal Cafe, named for the nearby mountain (at 2,262 feet the highest point in the valley), is one of the few places in Imperial Valley that hasn’t changed tremendously in the past few years. Everywhere else—particularly along the international border between Calexico and Mexicali—dynamic growth is occurring, fueled both by local undertakings and the potential of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Although nearly a half-million acres still are devoted to irrigated agriculture—the life-blood of the valley for almost 100 years—more and more cropland is being converted to urban use. And much of the urbanizing is driven by new maquiladora plants across the border in Mexico. Hundreds of tile-roofed subdivision homes surround the cities. One indicator of the unprecedented growth is the recent completion of a second high school in El Centro. Every other high school in the county was built in the 1920s or before.

This is a far cry from the Imperial Valley I remember as a child in the late 1940s, when I would visit my father, a U.S. Customs officer at the Calexico port of entry. The drive from San Diego on two-lane Highway 80—usually with a coffee stop in Pine Valley or Jacumba—took well over three hours then.

In those days, fewer than 80,000 people lived in the valley, nearly all of them connected in one way or another with farming or ranching. During the hot summers, farmers sent their families to the mountains, where they established colonies in Jacumba, Pine Valley and other wide spots in the road. (Later, affluent farmers bought summer residences on the coast.)

The Calexico border crossing had four gates, traffic was usually light, and the drug smuggling was small-time, mostly marijuana and a little heroin. Illegal immigration was virtually nonexistent. Brawley real-estate broker Al Smith, a Border Patrolman from 1941 to 1955, says he’d encounter one, maybe two, and no more than three illegal aliens a month on his one-man beat. For many of those years, until the law was changed in 1965, the government-sanctioned bracero program allowed Mexican nationals to work legally in the United States.

That was a long time ago, and change is inevitable, but few of the old-timers would have envisioned the metamorphosis that has taken place in the past few years—and is continuing.

Much of what is happening in Imperial Valley has to do with its strategic location on the border with Mexico. Great expectations came with the passage of NAFTA, and while many of those expectations have been unfulfilled, the future looks bright—when (and if) the Mexican economy gets back on track.

In the meantime, the 1994 devaluation of the peso has devastated business in Imperial County, because 80 percent of its customers come from across the line. Big chain retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Pace, rushed to build big-box stores in the 1990s, expecting a tidal wave of business from Mexico. They have been sorely disappointed. Pace is gone, and Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart’s warehouse/club store in Calexico—the first in California—has closed its doors.

SO NOW THERE’S A LULL. But like an Olympic athlete training for the big race, Imperial Valley is staying in shape for the moment the good times roll, spurred by NAFTA, an improved economy in Mexico—something, anything.

Certainly, Imperial Valley will continue to be a center of agriculture, but it could also could become a hub of international commerce and a major transportation gateway to Mexico and Latin America. Some observers suggest it is better situated than San Diego to become the nation’s principal commercial port of entry to the south. The new 22-gate commercial port of entry east of Calexico opens in July—if Mexico completes its facilities on time.

Futurists such as Imperial County Supervisor Wayne Van De Graaff envision development of a ship channel connecting the border with the Gulf of California, some 60 miles to the south, and creation of a major inland seaport, rivaling the port of Houston.

Repairing and upgrading the railroad link between Imperial Valley and San Diego is high on nearly everyone’s priority list to give the region easier access to the port of San Diego. And plans are moving forward to build a rail connection between the bustling port of Ensenada and Tecate, where it would connect with the San Diego–Imperial line.

Maria Matthews, executive director of the newly formed Valley of Imperial Development Alliance, has traveled to Washington, D.C., Canada and Mexico to market the region as a site for new business and industry. The county has joined the Border Trade Alliance, made up of representatives from the United States, Canada and Mexico trying to get the most out of NAFTA.

Banker Tom Topuzes projects Imperial Valley as a star player on a team that includes its neighbors: the resort area of Palm Springs and Palm Desert to the north, San Diego to the west and Baja California to the south. A graduate of San Diego State University and Western State University College of Law, Topuzes is the son of Calexico-born Danny Topaz, who entertained several generations playing the organ at nightclubs and Padres games.

Topuzes is senior vice president and chief administrative officer of 15-year-old Valley Independent Bank (VIB), which has grown from three branches to seven—including Coachella in Riverside County and Julian in San Diego County. Topuzes, who oversees VIB’s international banking department and spends much of his time in Mexico, is encouraged that despite the peso crisis, foreign investors are continuing to pour money into Mexicali maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories.

“Over the past year we’ve been able to document $38 million in foreign investment in Mexicali—and that’s a low figure, because most people aren’t going to tell you how much they’re really spending,” Topuzes says. “We estimate that Mexicali has boosted its overall production capacity by 30 percent.”

For example, Sony has completed an approximately 100,000-square-foot facility in Mexicali and plans to build a counterpart of equal size there. Mitsubishi has a new 206,000-square-foot Mexicali factory utilizing high-speed robotics to make assembly boards and plans another the same size. General Motors contracts with a Mexicali company that is developing automobile navigational systems. Taco Bell’s taco shells, tostadas and tortilla chips are made in Mexicali using cornmeal shipped from Texas. A steel mill melts down California junk cars and converts them into reinforcing steel for construction. The list goes on and on.

Some influential people—including Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, whose 52nd District includes Imperial Valley—question the benefit of cordial relations with Mexico and would like to see NAFTA overhauled or repealed. Other critics argue that maquiladoras in Mexico have lined the pockets of greedy foreign companies (many from the United States) who take advantage of low-paid Mexican labor and cost thousands of U.S. workers their jobs.

BUT THAT ATTITUDE DOESN’T WASH in Imperial Valley, with its population of some 130,000 dwarfed by the 1.5 million in Mexicali Valley. A study by real-estate research consultant Market Profiles, conducted before the peso devaluation, found that in 1993, 25.3 million Mexican nationals legally crossed the border and pumped $1.2 billion into the Imperial economy. That same study revealed that Mexicans have bought the majority of the approximately 600 new homes sold in Calexico in the 1990s.

It’s easy to figure out why, according to Russ Valone, president of Market Profiles. “New homes are scarce in Mexicali, and the maquiladora managers would much prefer to live and shop in the United States and send their kids to U.S. schools. Home prices—in the range of $150,000—are very low compared to most everywhere else in California.”

So much for closing the border and scrapping NAFTA. President Clinton doesn’t have many supporters in Imperial, which leans Republican, but at least he pushed for NAFTA.

Because of previous peso devaluations and hard times, Imperial Valley leaders, cognizant of the inherent dangers of leaning too heavily on the Mexican connection, are striving independently to diversify to build the tax base and create more good jobs. It’s a daunting task. For years, Imperial has been among California’s poorest counties, with 30 percent–plus unemployment and massive welfare payouts.

Past efforts to lure outside business and industry have met with mixed results. But since the late 1980s, the tide has turned, and more non–farm-related enterprises have discovered that the desert county is an ideal place to set up shop.

Off-the-farm endeavors that have blossomed in Imperial are disparate:

_ California’s prison boom has brought two institutions to the valley. Approximately 8,000 inmates at Calipatria and Centinela State Prisons are guarded by 2,000 employees, with more of both on the way.

_ Two commercial gold-mining companies, Goldfield and the American Girl, have been operating profitably in the east desert for several years.

_ Privately owned Mesquite landfill, located in a remote area of the county, will soon process 20,000 tons of nontoxic trash daily—shipped by rail from Los Angeles.

_ Geothermal power plants, survivors of the alternative-energy efforts of the 1970s, continue to sell electricity to Southern California Edison in Los Angeles. The 12 facilities provide 400 jobs and pay a big chunk of property taxes.

_ Because of massive drug smuggling and illegal immigration, the number of law-enforcement personnel—especially the feds—has mushroomed. Hundreds of Border Patrolmen, Customs and Drug Enforcement Administration agents and other border-related personnel are stationed in the region, plus FBI, Highway Patrolmen, deputy sheriffs, prison guards and police in the county’s seven incorporated cities.

The economy still is weak—and far too dependent on Mexico for comfort. So the heat is on both the public and private sectors to generate far more locally oriented business and middle-class jobs.

A fairly recent and positive phenomenon is the gradual disappearance of the often rancorous and counterproductive business competition between the north and south ends of the valley. While some rivalry between residents in the Brawley area and El Centro persists, a new spirit of cooperation, particularly on economic issues, seems to be emerging.

According to County Administrator Rich Inman, “The individual cities and county governments, the chambers of commerce and the private sector are coming together to get things done, either by choice or necessity. They realize they can no longer go it alone.”

The professional demeanor of the Board of Supervisors is another refreshing change. Inman describes the current board as “innovative and progressive”—in contrast to its predecessors. He praises the board’s talent for getting things done. “It has gained respect and admiration,” he says.

For example, under the current administration the county has gone into the movie business big time, capitalizing on the famous Algodones sand dunes and local scenery—including farmers’ fields and the Salton Sea. The spectacular dunes in the east desert—dead ringers for the Sahara of North Africa—have been used by Hollywood since the silent flicks and were a training ground for the tank troops of General George Patton in World War II. They also have been popular with off-roaders for years.

County government, booster groups and individuals are working to expand an already thriving winter-tourist industry by better publicizing the valley’s attractions. Most outsiders associate the desert with dust, desolation and off-road vehicles. Few are aware that the valley’s lagoons, marshes, canals and a national wildlife refuge at the Salton Sea are the winter home to more than 400 bird varieties. San Diego’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park gets publicity and most of the visitors, but rainy years also produce a springtime profusion of wildflowers in Imperial.

Twelve years ago, Ed McGrew, who has been growing vegetables and field crops and running a few cattle for 35 years, developed the Rio Bend RV Park west of El Centro. Three years ago, he added a nine-hole golf course, and in 1994 he installed 340 mobile-home hookups. “Thousands of snowbirds from the frigid northern states and Canada used to make a beeline for Yuma. Now that we have nice facilities, they come here,” McGrew says.

The legacy the supervisors would love to bestow upon future generations is the cleanup of the New River—if they can pull it off. The New River is the scourge of the Imperial and Mexicali valleys. Formed in 1905 after Colorado River waters flooded the valley, the infamous stream, laden with toxic waste and disease-ridden sewage, oozes north from Mexico to the Salton Sea. It may well be the most polluted river in the world and has besmirched the valley’s image for decades.

All past attempts to alleviate the pollution, which has become progressively worse, had generated lip service but little action. However, according to Inman, these supervisors were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore. Their first step was to reach an agreement with Mexicali and Baja California to seek a mutual solution. This action ruffled feathers in Mexico City and Washington, D.C., because the New River traditionally has been viewed as an international issue, to be dealt with by diplomats.

The county hired a Washington legal firm to push its cause. Utilizing what Inman calls a novel legal theory, a suit was filed against the Environmental Protection Agency, contending that the EPA was illegally allowing the “importation” of hazardous waste. Stripping away the legalese, what the county said in its suit was: (a) U.S.-owned companies in Mexicali dump toxic materials into the New River; (b) they flow freely into the United States; and (c) this constitutes importation of hazardous waste, which is against EPA rules.

Rather than go to court, the EPA agreed to lobby Congress for cleanup funds. The effort was successful. The $47.5 million appropriation will pay to refurbish the old Mexicali sewage plant and design a new facility. Also under consideration is a pipeline that would carry the New River underground in the Calexico area.

DESPITE NEW ECONOMIC DIVERSITY, agriculture still drives Imperial County. The value of all crops in 1994—the most recent report available—totaled more than $1 billion, almost $1 million more than in 1993. And though it isn’t what it used to be, the cattle industry continued to be the biggest dollar producer at $202.1 million. Imperial County is the nation’s winter vegetable garden, although it shares the spotlight with Arizona and Mexico. And more and more acreage is being planted in field crops, such as wheat, alfalfa, rye and Sudan grass, much of which is exported overseas.

One of the best-qualified advocates for agriculture is Louise Willey, who came to Imperial Valley from Texas in the 1920s and has been working on a ranch since she was a teenager. Her family operates the 65-year-old San Pasqual Land & Cattle Company feedlot near Brawley.

Her vision of the valley’s future is clouded. One of her greatest concerns is the clash between agriculture and urban development. The dust kicked up by farm implements and vehicles, the odors from feedlots, the noise of crop-dusting planes and the haze from burning crop residue already are drawing complaints from residential neighborhoods.

Claude Finnell, who was county agricultural commissioner for 33 of his 42 years in the valley, regrets the gradual disappearance of the family farm. “When I came here, there were more than 2,000 [farm] landowners; that number was down to 1,100 by 1980. Now I estimate there are 400,” Finnell says. “Part of that has to do with corporate farming—and part of it has to do with the fact that kids brought up on the farm are going off to school, and they’re not coming back, because they can make more money doing something else.”

There’s still lots of land for building. According to Market Profiles, 27 subdivisions with a total of 18,461 homes are in various stages of planning in Imperial Valley. More than 8,500 houses could be built near the border in Calexico.

Major commercial developments also are planned. Third-generation farmer John Pierre Menvielle is one of four owners of Gateway of the Americas, a proposed distribution center on 1,400 acres near the new commercial port east of Calexico. He and his partners are in no hurry to build. “We’re waiting for the Mexican economy to improve and for NAFTA to begin realizing its potential before we start anything. It may take 35 to 40 years to finish this project.”

From her vantage point at the Mount Signal Cafe—on still-lonely State Highway 98, surrounded by farms but less than 20 minutes from bustling Calexico and Mexicali—Sandra Bazabal is overwhelmed by all the hubbub occurring around her. Except for reupholstered booths, replaced fixtures and some new Blue Angels and bullfighting memorabilia added to the walls, little has changed in her environment in almost four decades.

“I see all those new houses, and traffic is much heavier when I go to town, but it means little to me,” Bazabal says in her halting English. “We have many regulars, and we earn enough to make a living. That’s all we need.” Mount Signal is about as far as you can get from NAFTA and the world economy.

SIDEBAR:

Where Water Has Whipped Up a Fire

One issue of major controversy, and one that will have an enormous economic impact on the future of Imperial Valley, is the possible “marketing”—or selling—of some of its water. Residents have fought furious battles over the years to protect their most precious commodity: rights to the water that irrigates their fields and flows from their taps.

At the heart of the acrimonious debate, which has made enemies of old friends and extends far beyond traditional provincial feuds, is whether it is legally or morally right to sell water at a profit.

Many longtime residents who bear the scars of previous water wars are emphatically opposed, noting that the figure of $400 an acre-foot has been mentioned as the amount farmers could earn for water for which they now pay only $12.50 (the water itself is free under U.S. Reclamation law, so that amount covers only the delivery system). Others are eager for the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), which holds water rights in trust for the landowners, to hammer out a “water transfer” deal with somebody, most likely drought-weary San Diego, although Las Vegas also has entered the picture.

The district already is engaged in limited water marketing. In 1989, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which serves San Diego and much of the Los Angeles area, reached agreement with the IID to take 106,000 acre-feet of the valley’s annual Colorado River allotment of 2.6 million acre-feet. In exchange, MWD agreed to pay to line canals in concrete and build other projects designed to conserve an equal amount of water in the valley. Since then, additional deals that would give MWD more “saved” Imperial water have been discussed, but they are not settled.

Landowners found little to criticize in the MWD deal, which is sort of a quid pro quo. What’s really shaken up the valley—to an intensity nearly as great as the earthquakes that occur periodically along the San Andreas Fault beneath its fertile soil—is the entry of two more participants in the tug of war over water: Western Farms, a subsidiary of a Texas-based conglomerate controlled by investors Sid and Lee Bass, and the San Diego County Water Authority (CWA).

In the past three years, the Bass brothers have spent more than $40 million buying 40,000 acres of Imperial farmland. Much of it has been leased back to growers. On the remainder, Western is pasturing 8,000 cattle on 2,300 acres of grassland and growing 1,500 acres of wheat. However, many locals suspect that Western’s huge investment has far more to do with selling water than farming or ranching, and they fear that given the chance, Western would take land out of production and concentrate on the more profitable water business.

San Diego is seriously interested in bringing water over the mountains from Imperial, bypassing the MWD. Last fall, following a series of talks, the San Diego CWA and the IID signed a memorandum of understanding to explore ways to build a system to transfer up to 500,000 acre-feet of water to the coast.

How would IID come up with that amount of water? Part of the answer is found in the IID’s Draft Water Requirements and Availability Study, which figures the valley could conserve an additional 405,800 acre-feet a year. But it wouldn’t come cheap. According to the report, the potential user—San Diego—would have to compensate the district and the landowners for conservation systems.

That’s where the ballpark figure of $400 an acre-foot comes into play. That’s the price San Diego might have to pay after adding up the bills for installing drip and sprinkler irrigation, tail water returns and other water-saving measures on valley farms.

Veteran journalist Bob Liggett, who for more than 20 years was managing editor of the local daily, the Imperial Valley Press, writes in a recent issue of Valley Grower magazine: “Most people accept the fact that water marketing is inevitable; they’re concerned about the manner in which it will be done and how soon.” There’s a rising tide of public opinion that the IID’s draft study—both in terms of research methods and conclusions—is seriously flawed and that the board is moving too quickly, Liggett says.

IID’s board president, Bill Condit, says he favors a transfer agreement with San Diego. He doesn’t speculate on the cost, or whether the price paid by San Diego would be sufficient to underwrite the conservation systems in the fields. The larger question, Condit says, is whether San Diego can afford to build an aqueduct—and whatever else it needs—to handle the half-million acre-feet it is seeking.

What’s created the greatest furor, however, is the Bass brothers’ foray into Imperial Valley. Valley folks never have taken kindly to strangers, especially those who don’t state their business up front. Few believed the Basses at first when they said they were buying all that land and spending all that money to raise crops and feed cattle. They finally owned up to being interested in water marketing, but they’d already destroyed their credibility.

Under present federal law, owners could not receive water for land taken out of production, nor could they sell water independently of the district. But some say the Basses—and others—have sufficient political clout to get the law changed. California business interests already are putting together a “model water transfer act,” which, according to an early draft, would allow individual landowners to conserve and sell water themselves, thus bypassing districts like the IID.

To further muddy the waters, in late March the five-member IID board, general manager Michael J. Clinton and three employees were summoned to testify before the Imperial County Grand Jury, possibly about the dealings with the Bass brothers, the Metropolitan Water District or San Diego—or all three. Rumors were swirling like dust devils in the desert that criminal indictments might be handed down—but no one was talking for the record.

With so many plots and subplots churning the current, no one knows and no one will predict the future of water in the Imperial Valley, but one thing is certain: Whither Imperial Valley’s water goes, so goes Imperial Valley.

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