Kevin Kelley, the former Imperial Irrigation District general manager, and a talented writer and musician, died in home in El Centro on Tuesday, Jan. 19. Kelley was age 61. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IID

Kevin Kelley, Former IID GM, Journalist, and Musician, Dies at 61

A brilliant writer and journalist, musician, and all-around scholar in the history of the Imperial Valley’s often complicated relationship with water, former Imperial Irrigation District General Manager Kevin Kelley died in his home on Tuesday morning, Jan. 19. He was 61 years old.

His passing was confirmed by Imperial Irrigation District Director Norma Sierra Galindo, who had spoken to one of Kelley’s daughters that morning, and later by his younger brother, Imperial County District 4 Supervisor Ryan Kelley.

Kevin Kelley is survived by immediate family members, his wife, Mary Beth Kelley; daughters, Kathleen Spanos and Maureen Kelley, and son, Kevin Kelley. He had one grandchild.   

“We are overcome with grief and the loss. We are sharing our memories and lifting each other up,” Ryan Kelley wrote in a text message. “My big brother is with us all in spirit.”

“My heart is sinking with grief. … He was one of the most objective people I knew. Everything he saw he saw it in black and white, which always gave me a different perspective. He had a very analytical approach to things,” said Sierra Galindo, who had grown close to Kelley during her time on the IID board and while Kelley served as a consultant to the district following his retirement in January 2019.

Sierra Galindo had spoken to Kelley around 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 18, one of their near-daily conversations, she added.

“It was a sudden death, unexpected death,” she said. “Kevin never went to the doctor. … We (Galindo and his daughter) were laughing that the last time he went to a doctor, a physical was mandated by the IID.”

Sierra Galindo was audibly broken up about Kelley’s passing during a phone interview with the Calexico Chronicle, saying he was among her closest and dearest friends, and a confidant.

She said, to her knowledge, Kelley was the longest-tenured general manager in the modern history of the Imperial Irrigation District, and his legacy is a rich one.

“There were many accomplishments,” Sierra Galindo said, one of the most important being Kelley’s lead role in demanding that the state Water Resources Control Board recognize and acknowledge California’s responsibility restoring the Salton Sea.

Kelley did this in November 2016, taking the fight straight to Sacramento, where he skewered the five-member board in an exchange that made state newswires and water and environmental blogs at the time.

“You assigned a task force to address this problem, but neither the task nor the force were sufficient to meet the scope of the problem,” Kelley was quoted in a wire service report. “The state has dithered and called it due diligence. We have a ticking time bomb, and you’ve treated it like a beach ball at a backyard picnic.

“The Salton Sea is no picnic,” Kelley added.

Kevin Kelley stands in line at an airport in a photo taken during an Imperial Irrigation District business trip by Director Norma Sierra Galindo. | COURTESY PHOTO

Now, more than four years later, the state is honoring its responsibilities, albeit in increments. Since Kelley’s showdown, much has occurred: California has implemented Phase 1 of the Salton Sea Management Plan and committed more than $300 million toward restoration efforts. Just last week, the first major construction project of the 10-year management plan got underway, the Species Conservation Habitat project.

Further, Sierra Galindo said, Kelley will be remembered for the instrumental role he played for the district in “winning the case against the Abatti family; he was really the mastermind in what we were doing.”

Although she said the case had been all but decided after his retirement, early on Kelley was pivotal in constructing the response to grower Mike Abatti’s long-running lawsuit in which he asserted the farmers and landowners are the ones who should have ultimate say over how water is used in the Imperial Valley.

A state appellate court last year overturned the local decision in the Abatti case that basically ruled the water rights were tied to the land, and thus, the provenance of the landowners.

“He thought the water belonged to all of us,” Sierra Galindo said, and she added that he paid dearly for those beliefs: “Those farmers, they bullied him, they picked on him. … But he stood his ground.”

The IID Board of Directors and management held a moment of silence to commemorate Kelley’s passing during Tuesday’s board meeting.

General Manager Enrique Martinez announced Kelley’s death earlier that day, adding that he gives his deepest condolences to Kelley’s family.

“I didn’t know Kevin as long as many of you had, but the time that I spent with him I found him to be not only a very personable individual, very opinionated on his ways of how he thought, but most of all he was just a fun person to be around,” Martinez said. 

General Counsel Frank Oswalt also commented on the loss, saying he was in shock about Kelley’s death. Kelley was the general manager who hired Oswalt in 2016.

“He was an extraordinary human being,” Oswalt said. “He had a massive intellect. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the (Colorado) River, and he had a wit that was so dry that sometimes it took me a few minutes to realize I had been skewered by one of his remarks. I will never forget the man.”

No directors offered any comments about Kelley during the meeting. Sierra Galindo was not in attendance, absent due to a personal engagement, she told the Chronicle.

Kevin Kelley’s professional legacy does indeed cast a long shadow. While relations between the district and the San Diego County Water Authority have at times been tense — the agencies are linked through an up-to-75-year ag-to-urban water transfer pact — San Diego’s respect for Kelley was clear.

“We were saddened to learn of Kevin’s passing. During his years as general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District and in all his interactions with us, it was very clear his goal was always to serve the needs of the Imperial Valley, protect the Valley’s water rights and make sure the Salton Sea was addressed,” said Dan Denham, deputy general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority. “I would add that his knowledge of the Colorado River was always crucial to our conversations, and we appreciated his willingness to work through issues with us.”

Kelley served as IID’s general manager from January 2011 to January 2019. After a long career trajectory as a journalist/writer and sometime political consultant, he joined the district as a community relations representative in 2006.

A year later, he would be elevated to the position of assistant to the general manager under Chief Operating Officer Michael Campbell.

Then, and later, when he assumed the mantle of GM, Kelley faced criticism over how a former journalist and public relations person could have been hired to such positions. Yet it was well-known among many in the community that Kelley was an expert in water, both the history and the legal rights surrounding it.

Even as publisher of Valley Grower magazine, and later, as opinion section editor of the Imperial Valley Press, Kelley knew both the voluminous Quantification Settlement Agreement signed by the seven lower basin states that draw off the Colorado River, and the water transfer agreement between IID and San Diego County Water Authority, like the back of his hand.

Generally, many of Kelley’s friends and acquaintances knew him as a man of varied interests, great intelligence, and immense talents.

“I think of it like a huge library has burned down. He was a font of knowledge, a scholar when it came to history, an accomplished historian, a sociologist, and certainly a literary authority,” said Sierra Galindo, who is a Calexico High School teacher in her professional life. “There wasn’t anything he had not read. He was the only person I know who had read the classics (works of English-language literature).

“His knowledge was transcendent, and transcended borders,” she added, referring to has expansive grasp on how water came to the Imperial Valley.

Sierra Galindo said he was not just well-versed on the historical perspective of water and water rights in the Imperial Valley and the greater United States, but in Mexico as well.

Kelley was nearly finished with a book he was writing on water in the Valley, from historical, sociological, and political perspectives. Kelley recently said that he didn’t have a publisher yet, but was thinking of an academic imprint, possibly through his alma mater, the University of Southern California, from which he graduated with a communications degree in 1984.

Yet he was careful to say his book would not be stuffy, like most academically published works.

Over the years, Kelley had been a man of many trades, serving as executive director of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce, two stints with the Imperial Valley Press, and as publisher and mostly uncredited author of the magazine Valley Grower, known for its lush prose. Kelley also helped friends on political campaigns early in his career.

Former Imperial Valley Press Editor and current columnist, screen writer, and college lecturer Bret Kofford counted Kelley as one of his closest friends. It was alongside Kofford when Kelley returned to the Press as opinion editor in the early 2000s, the last job Kelley held before leaving for the district.

“Those of us who knew Kevin well knew that while he ran the IID for a number of years, at heart he was an artist: a tremendously talented improvisational pianist and a gifted writer. He and I most often talked about music and writing, even though we were caught up in the political world of the Valley through our previous jobs,” Kofford wrote in an online message. “Shortly before the pandemic started, I ran into him a couple of times in local coffee shops, and our conversations, which were supposed to last minutes, ended up lasting hours. He was a close friend and a soulmate in many ways. I am crushed by his passing.”

It was the artistic side that could be most surprising for people who did not know Kelley well, or only as the erudite, slim figure seemingly born in a blazer.

Sierra Galindo recalls being in a small airport in Monterey with Kelley some years back while attending a conference and watching him drop his bags and sit down at a piano in the airport lobby.

“He started playing ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ (the Duke Ellington jazz standard), and people started crowding around him,” she said.

Hunched over at the electric piano, the late Kevin Kelley (second from left) performs with other local jazz musicians, including (from left) drummer Marty Holbrook, Majid Rahman playing bass guitar, saxophonist Mark Rasmussen, the late band leader and local music legend Jimmie Cannon on trumpet and Clark Baker, also on trumpet. The photo was from a private party the group played. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CLARK BAKER

Local musicians Clark Baker and Majid Rahman were both saddened to learn of Kelley’s passing. Guitarist Rahman called Kelley an “accomplished musician” and “a dear friend,” and Baker shared old photos of Kevin behind the keyboards at noteworthy gigs over the years.

Baker, who for many years owned Clark Baker Music, was a trumpet player in Jimmie Cannon’s Valley Jazz, and started his own combo in Standing Room Only, which began playing out of the music store on Main Street in El Centro, said Kelley played semi-professionally in bands in Los Angeles and San Diego while in college.

Plain and simple, Kevin Kelley was a monster musician, a “true jazz head,” as one longtime friend put it.

Like jazz great and saxophonist Stan Getz said, “There are four qualities essential to a great jazzman: They are taste, courage, individuality, and irreverence,” and Kelley embodied them all.

If anyone knows that, it’s drummer Marty Holbrook, who played on and off again with Kelley for nearly 45 years. Holbrook was in shock Tuesday over the news of his old friend’s passing, but he said it was nice to be able to reminisce about a long relationship the two had in music.

“I’m still stunned. Clark called me while I was driving … I just froze. Stunned and trying to process it,” he said. “He was a jazz head. But he had range.

“Kevin was surprising. Once he turned on the jazz pianist persona, you knew he could haul out some crazy chords, and you never knew what he was gonna try,” Holbrook continued. “That was the fun of playing with him, (we were) always watching each other for cues. That was his alter ego, behind the keyboard.”

Holbrook used to drive Kelley home from band rehearsals when Kevin was in high school and Marty was in junior college. Over the years they played in rock bands, and eventually, after Kelley returned from USC, any number of configurations and iterations of jazz groups.

Holbrook said Kelley was particularly fond of pianists Chick Correa and Oscar “Pumphandle” Peterson, both known for their speed and dexterity.

Together, Holbrook and Kelley formed the backbone of the Blue Lake group, which performed since the 1980s as anything from a quartet to a septet, depending on available players. Rahman sat in with them often over the years.

The last gig Blue Lake played together, Holbrook believes, was atop the Brawley Elks Lodge roof in early to mid-2019, where it was Kelley, Holbrook, Rahman, James Anderholt on bass, and saxophonist Quincy Cavers.

Blue Lake was also the standing entertainment for years at the Sts. Peter and Paul Episcopal Church fundraiser, Palate and Palette, or as Holbrook and Kelley always called it, “the wine and cheese gig.”

The day Kelley announced his retirement from the IID in January 2019, a reporter caught up with him in the hallway of the district’s El Centro offices, where he playfully told of recently going on a spending spree of classic and new digital keyboards and synthesizers.

Holbrook said one of the last times he saw Kelley was when Kevin asked him to come over and help him swap out of one his mounted Moog synths for a mini-Moog, which Holbrook said he had all set up in his living room.

Recently during a wide-ranging conversation with the Chronicle just over a week ago, Kelley said he was back to paying close attention to one of most prized possessions, the grand piano he acquired from a pioneer family more than a decade ago.

He was buzzing with accomplishment over the fact that he had recently mastered John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” a tenor sax tour de force known for its brutally complicated chord progression and free-flowing melodies.

“If he could have hauled the grand piano to gigs, he would have done it,” Holbrook said, he was “settling” every time he used a digital piano or synthesizer.

Kelley’s untimely passing hit Holbrook hard, who was looking forward to the pandemic easing up in 2021 so that he and Kevin might play together again. “It’s a tragedy. Now it’s not going to be able to happen,” he said.

Elizabeth Varin contributed reporting to this story.

Editor Richard Montenegro Brown, who wrote this piece, worked with Kelley for several years at the Imperial Valley Press, where Kelley edited Brown’s weekly opinion column and other writing.

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