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Imperial Irrigation District: Who are These People?

In Community Interest, Sun City Palm Desert, Sun City Shadow Hills
Imperial Irrigation District Workers
Imperial Irrigation District Damn
This location, designated Drop 4, is one of 5 generator sites on the All American Canal. When the gate is opened irrigation water flows down the drop chute causing the propeller to turn inside the generator which in turn produces  electricity. The water then continues along the canal to irrigate crops.

The name is somewhat misleading, often considered a misnomer by new Sun City home owners when told to contact Imperial Irrigation for their electric power. Imperial Irrigation does not supply Sun City homes’ irrigation or drinking water, just the lowest priced electricity in the valley! How in the world did that come about?

By the late nineteenth century, entrepreneurs who’d imagined an irrigated agricultural bounty in the Imperial Valley, formed the California Development Company (CDC) which cut diversions in the Colorado River to deliver water to the Imperial Valley while building a permanent canal.  Between 1901 and 1904, the CDC realized their plans, but Mother Nature intervened. Torrential and persistent rains created a raging river that over the course of months washed out the temporary diversions and overflowed it banks. The erosion of the river bank opened to a 2700 foot wide gap. The Colorado River’s course had abruptly changed and now ran freely into the Imperial Valley for two years (1905-1907) before the huge breach could be repaired.

The river course abruptly changed and now rampaged freely into the Imperial Valley, causing mayhem and destruction, for two years (1905-1907), before the huge breach could be repaired.

The CDC did not have the resources to cope with the disaster, so the Southern Pacific Railroad, working with the government and also to protect their rail route from water, spent millions of dollars and delivered countless rail car loads of boulders and fill material to perfect the repair.  Meanwhile all that water settled into the site of a prehistoric dry lake bed, at minus 250 feet below sea level, to create the modern day 16 mile by 36 mile Salton Sea.

In 1911 Imperial County residents petitioned the state to form The Imperial Irrigation District (IID), which would be owned by the people it was intended to serve. It would become a non-profit, public agency, run by an elected board, autonomous from county government.  Approved in July 1911, the IID immediately set out to acquire the assets of the defunct CDC which included the canal that traveled through Mexico for 30 miles and then entered Imperial Valley—the Mexican diversion a product of having to skirt the Algodones Sand Hills years before. The early years were difficult with river floods, lack of total control of the canal in Mexico, infighting on the board, The Great Depression, law suits and other distractions. In spite of that they persevered with steadfast leadership.

Imperial Irrigation propeller from a hydroelectric generator
Workers inspect a 6 foot propeller from a hydroelectric generator housed in the building in the background.

From the beginning, the IID board sought better flood control measures and wished for a canal that was entirely in the United States.  The Federal government’s response to the Great Depression provided the means as Works Progress Administration projects like the Hoover Dam (1935) and the subsequent All-American Canal (1942) enabled better flood control and a diversion canal entirely within U.S. borders.

The Federal government built and owns the All-American Canal, but required the IID to repay the construction costs and to operate and maintain the canal for regional use. The board initiated a plan to help repay the government by installing five drop water, hydroelectric generators into the All-American Canal system to produce inexpensive power with water that will ultimately be used for irrigation. In 1942 IID entered into another phase of their amazing journey as they began the delivery of low cost electricity to homes. Today they serve 145,000 electric meters!

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