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California's Future Is Here

July 22, 2001

The Gold Rush brought people to California, but it was big, bold water projects that allowed the state--much of it desert--to develop the way it has. Now California must find other ways, including conservation and reuse of water, to meet the state's water demands. California's water future is out there on the farm. About 80% of the usable water supply in California is consumed on farms and ranches in California; only 20% in cities and towns and by all business and industry.

For more than two decades, state policy has been to encourage urban water districts to buy water from farmers. But nearly a century after the city of Los Angeles stole the water of the Eastern Sierra, the words "Owens Valley" are invoked whenever someone talks about the city going after a farmer's water.

Water rights are sacred, and the law books abound with impediments to water trading between farm and city, often spurred by farmers' fears of attempted water grabs by growing cities. Of course, no one is talking of making water a private commodity in an open market, especially after what happened in the electric power industry. The water belongs to the people of California. Customers essentially pay the cost of getting it to their faucets.

Up to now, most trades of water from farm to city have been conducted under the strictest of conditions. For instance, farmers in the giant Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County would only sell the water saved by lining leaky canals and other conservation techniques. They would not take any cropland out of production to send more water to cities.

Now, however, there has been a major breakthrough that could serve as a model for farm-to-city water deals. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California agreed to buy 110,000 acre-feet of water a year--enough to serve 220,000 households--for the next 35 years from the Palo Verde Irrigation District on the Colorado River. Palo Verde farmers would fallow up to 29% of their cropland annually on a rotating basis.

The deal will not solve all of MWD's water supply problems. The Palo Verde water would merely replace some of the Colorado River water the giant district will lose over the next 15 years to meet legal decrees. If this water sale works without harming the Palo Verde Valley's agricultural economy, however, the agreement may be a turning point in meeting the urban demand for additional water.

Most of the opposition comes from operators of irrigation districts who insist on keeping the water within districts, from local tradespeople who depend on the farmers for their livelihood and farm workers whose jobs might be eliminated by leaving fields idle. Foes stir up images of the Owens Valley or abandoned farms of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

But the Palo Verde farmers will merely be leasing a portion of their water to the city folk. They will not be selling their heritage and moving to Mexico. Farmer Bart Fisher told The Times' Tony Perry: "If we get money, it gets spent here." Much of the cash may go into new tractors and better irrigation systems. Some farmers may grow just as much food on less water and enjoy much greater financial stability.

Forget Owens Valley. This is a bright new water era in California.

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