SoCal water district offers to pay farmers not to farm : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

SoCal water district offers to pay farmers not to farm

By Ben Fox Associated Press Writer

BLYTHE, Calif. (AP) -- The state's largest importer of water for cities could make substantial progress toward a requirement that it reduce its reliance on the Colorado River under a plan to pay farmers in the arid Palo Verde Valley to keep portions of their land fallow.

Growers said the offer would provide them economic stability without hurting their water rights. But some local officials worry it could cut the number of farm jobs and have a negative trickle-down impact on the fragile agricultural economy in the southeast corner of the state.

California's largest water importing agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, announced its plan Friday to help the state meet a federally imposed deadline to start living within its allotment of river water, which is also shared by Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

The district, which supplies water to 17 million people from Ventura and San Bernardino counties down to the Mexican border, wants to pay farmers to set aside between 7 percent and 29 percent of their fields.

The 35-year program, which could begin in August 2002 if approved, would provide between 25,000 acre feet and 111,000 acre feet a year to the district.

An acre foot is 326,000 gallons, or about as much as two families use in a year.

The Interior Department has ordered California to come within its annual allotment of Colorado River water, 4.4 million acre feet, by 2016. Historically, the state has been able to exceed its allotment by using unclaimed river water, but that arrangement will end with the deadline.

Last year, the state used 5.3 million acre feet from the river.

The deal with Palo Verde Valley farmers could provide about 20 percent of what the Metropolitan Water District needs to come up with.

"This provides a very secure component to the Southern California water supply at a competitive price," said Dennis Underwood, the district's vice president for Colorado River resources.

Agriculture is the heart of the economy for the valley, which is ringed by ash and chocolate-colored mountains and is home to 37,000 people.

Aside from two local prisons, most jobs have some connection to farming, which has become less profitable as commodity prices have dropped in recent years.

The Metropolitan Water District is offering to negotiate individual deals with the valley's five dozen farms, most of them family owned. A majority of the farmers must agree in order for the proposal to be ratified.

The district would make one-time payments of $3,170 for each acre set aside. It also would make annual payments that could total more than growers receive from their crops in some years, said Bart Fisher, a farmer and trustee with the local irrigation district.

"It's not a huge windfall, but it's steady. It's something you can bank on," said Fisher, a third-generation farmer with 10,000 acres of melons, cotton and other crops.

Over the 35 years of the plan, the district could spend up to $337 million dollars to secure 3.6 million acre feet of water.

Mark Fulton, the executive vice president of the local chamber of commerce, worries it would hurt farm workers as well as farm-related businesses such as equipment sales and repairs.

"I think the farmers have made a good deal for themselves without thinking of the other businesses," Fulton said.

Fisher and others, however, say the impact would be minimal since only land that already is the least productive would be set aside.

Dan Robinson, who grows melons and other crops on his 3,500 acres, said the deal would be a positive boost for the local economy.

"If we get money, it gets spent here," he said.

As an added incentive, the district has offered to invest $6 million in community programs.

Without the deal, Robinson noted, urban areas could decide in the future to use their political clout to take the water on less agreeable terms. "If they need this water and they play hardball, they're going to get this water," he said.

Previously, California farmers have been reluctant to enter into fallowing programs with urban areas out of fear they would permanently lose their water rights. Fisher and others said, however, that the region's claims would be protected in the long run and that by negotiating with the district, they'll avoid a potential costly legal battle over water in the future.

The district's board of directors is expected to formally approve the deal at its meeting next week in Los Angeles. Underwood is optimistic that enough farmers will agree to the program in time for it to start next summer. From there, he hopes it will be the model for agreements between urban waters users and farmers in other regions.

-- Martin Thompson (, July 07, 2001


Nearly a perfect solution to Cal's water problems. All they have to do to perfect it is pay us not to eat...


-- joj (jump@off.c), November 06, 2001.

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