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Tapping Into Controversy : Water Reform Bill May Mean Big Changes to Irrigation in the Central Valley

October 09, 1992|DONNA K. H. WALTERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last May, cotton grower Mark Borba took it as a personal promise when President Bush, meeting with Central Valley farmers in a raisin shed outside of Fresno, said he wouldn't accept a water reform package if Congress passed it.

Well, Congress passed it all right, and now Borba--who put the question to the President at last spring's gathering--is hoping for a veto.

"Basically, they've now legislated a permanent drought in the San Joaquin Valley," said Borba of the legislation--approved by the Senate on Thursday and the House on Tuesday--that would restrict farmers' access to water from the Central Valley Project, long the lifeblood of California's irrigated farmlands.

While environmental and some business interests applaud the legislation, and economists say the effects would be absorbed over time, Borba is one of many among the state's far-flung agricultural interests predicting devastation to the state's Garden of Eden if the legislation is enacted.

"Tens of thousands of jobs (in agriculture) will be lost," said Borba, who grows cotton and nearly a dozen other crops on the 17,000-acre Borba Farms south of Fresno.

He contends that many growers in the state's most productive areas have already been through an economic "hemorrhaging" after six years of drought, and new reductions in water allotments will be especially difficult for small, farming-dependent communities along the dried-out western edge of the San Joaquin Valley. "Towns like Firebaugh, Mendota, Huron, those towns will cease to exist," he warned.

But economists say disruption to the state's $18-billion agribusiness won't be drastic, simply because California farmers already have been coping with drought-forced reductions in water allotments from the Central Valley Project.

Richard Howitt, professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis, agreed that growers in some areas of the San Joaquin Valley would be hard-pressed to endure additional cutbacks in water. But he said the legislation would also encourage greater efficiency of water use by making it more profitable for inefficient farmers to sell their water to other, more water-wise growers.

Howitt said the legislation will have a major impact--"it's going to change the rules of the game," shifting the power over resources away from the state's mighty agricultural sector and toward urban and environmental interests.

The bill sets aside nearly 1.2 million acre feet of water, out of the project's annual 3.2 million acre feet, for wildlife and water systems conservation and preservation.

While it would limit farmers' access to the water, it would make it easier for cities and urban water districts to tap into the supplies.

It would also phase out farmers' long-term contracts for federally subsidized water--a provision the California Farm Bureau said is counterproductive to farmers' needs for long-range planning.

George Tibbitts, director for national affairs for the Farm Bureau, said the water reform will have a negative impact on the state's economy.

"In a nutshell," he said, "it will take some acres out of production, put some farms out of business and make California a net importer of food--which it is not now."

That, he said, will mean consumers will be paying higher prices for food.

Economists say that with less water, California farmers would make changes in what crops they grow. Fewer would be growing water-intensive, low-value crops such as fodder grasses, said Seth Hall, senior research analyst at the Farm Credit Bank in Sacramento, a bank for farmer-owned credit associations throughout the West.

Those farmers, said Hall and Howitt, would move into other commodities, such as fruits and vegetables, that fetch higher prices.

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