ar from the highways of Los Angeles and the shipyards of San Diego, in California’s southeastern corner, nearly half a million acres of lush green farmland unfold in the middle of the bone-dry Sonoran Desert. Sprawling fields of lettuce and sugar beets and onions, irrigated by water from the Colorado River, brush up against the U.S-Mexico border in a region once known as the Valley of Death but today called the Imperial Valley. A few hundred landowning families dominate the Imperial Valley and its lucrative agriculture industry, which produces much of America’s winter vegetables. The valley is one of California’s most impoverished areas, with a stark divide between the mostly white landowners and the mostly Latino farmworkers who labor in their fields.
Even among the landowning elite, Mike Abatti stands out.
Abatti’s ancestors helped settle the Imperial Valley a century ago, and today he’s one of the region’s most successful farmers, with thousands of acres under cultivation and crops he says are worth more than $10 million this year. He grows those crops with vast amounts of water from the drought-stricken Colorado River; for every thousand drops of Colorado River water used by California, Arizona and Nevada in 2012, three and a half of those drops watered fields owned by Abatti. He has also made a second career for himself in the energy industry, winning tens of millions of dollars in publicly funded energy contracts from the Imperial Irrigation District, on whose board of directors he once served.
But while Abatti looms large in the Imperial Valley, the full story of his enormous influence has never been told. It’s a story about public officials — including Abatti’s friends in elected office, a judge with ties to his family, and a district attorney whose second-in-command is his sister-in-law — repeatedly making decisions that have advanced Abatti’s private interests. And it’s a story about money and influence in an often overlooked corner of California, where political battles over water and energy can have ripple effects across California and the Southwest.