In the California desert, a farm baron is building a water and energy empire

The full story of Mike Abatti’s enormous influence — over the desert’s Colorado River water, agriculture and energy — has never been told. Until now.

Far 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.

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