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Details Murky in Water Deal's Mitigation Plans

November 23, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

EL CENTRO, Calif. — After nine years of haggling over the details of the nation's largest transfer of water usage from farms to cities, officials in the Imperial Valley now face an equally daunting task: easing the economic pain of farmworkers and business owners expected to be hurt by the deal's controversial fallowing plan.

Although the 75-year deal includes a minimum of $20 million to offset third-party effects, no specific strategy has been devised to determine who deserves to be paid and how such payments should be made.

Under the deal, Imperial Valley will sell up to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year to San Diego County, enough for the needs of 400,000 families.

To save water in the first 15 years, farmers will have to leave up to 40,000 acres of farmland unplanted, likely throwing scores of farmworkers out of a job.

Businesses that sell goods and services to farms -- equipment and fertilizer firms, irrigation companies, tractor repair firms and more -- are likely to see sales plummet as farm acreage is reduced. Even businesses such as big retail stores may be hurt as incomes are reduced countywide.

Among the thorny issues is whether farmworkers left jobless should receive checks or retraining for other jobs, or whether the money should be used to lure industry to the valley. The binational aspect of Imperial County's workforce and economy make the issue even more complicated, officials concede.

An estimated 80% of field laborers in Imperial County's 500,000 acres of farmland are Mexican nationals who may simply return to Mexico and thus be unavailable for retraining or other benefits.

In a fashion consistent with the manner in which the deal was struck between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority, most of the details involving softening the social and economic effects of the water sale have been left to the 11th hour and beyond.

That slowness has not been lost on the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and a dissident group of farmers, both of which are suing to block the water sale as harmful to the county and its $1.2-billion-a-year farm economy.

Both of the suits contend that the irrigation district failed to adequately study the economic impact of the sale, particularly on the county's low-income residents. Imperial County, with a population of 140,000, chronically has the highest unemployment of any county in the state.

The water deal -- signed last month at a ceremony at Hoover Dam in Nevada -- calls for an 11-member "local entity," backed by three economists, to make decisions involving the $20 million.

Because the issue could influence other potential water deals across the Western United States, labor and environmental activists are watching closely and offering expertise.

State and federal water planners believe sales from water-rich farm areas to thirsty cities will become increasingly important as a way to cope with burgeoning populations without controversial projects such as reservoirs and dams.

If the high-profile deal is seen as harmful to farmworkers and business owners, opposition to other water sales could increase substantially.

David Yardas, an economist with the Oakland office of the national Environmental Defense group, told a gathering here last week that the water deal is "a grand experiment" that will "hopefully [provide] a model for how to do it right."

But local Farm Bureau President Ronnie Leimgruber fears a scramble for the $20 million. "The problem I see is that we've got so many private-interest groups with dollar signs floating around their heads," Leimgruber said.

The deal, however, has already wrought a kind of historic alliance of former adversaries: an informal pact between the Farm Bureau and the United Farm Workers union to work together to compensate farmworkers and others. After the bruising labor struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, the UFW does not have any contracts with Imperial Valley growers. The union each year holds a memorial ceremony to remember a young farmworker killed during a protest in the Imperial Valley.

Martha Guzman, legislative specialist with the UFW, said she was encouraged by the Farm Bureau pledge of cooperation. By comparison, Guzman said, water deals and fallowing plans in the Central Valley have not included any compensation for farmworkers.

In the Imperial Valley, the fallowing is seen as only temporary as farmers install water-conservation devices in their fields.

One difficulty in deciding who should be compensated will be separating the effects of the water sale from other forces shaping agriculture: fluctuating markets, improved harvesting technology and competition from other areas, including Mexico.

"Market forces have fallowed more acreage in this valley than the [water sale] ever will," said Imperial Irrigation District board member Bruce Kuhn.

Kuhn provided the swing vote to ensure the water deal's approval by 3 to 2. Now he is seeking reelection against a candidate who opposes the water deal.

"There is a lot of conflict [in the Imperial Valley] because we're doing something that is very big," said Leah Wills, an official with Northern California-based Forest Community Research, which has studied the economic and social effect of other land-use programs.

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