Landmark Water Pact Is Expected

The accord would divert supplies to urban use by paying farmers in two Southland counties.

May 11, 2004|Jerry Hirsch and Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writers

The Metropolitan Water District is set to approve a landmark agreement that would pay farmers in two Southern California counties to take land out of production so that irrigation water could be diverted to urban users.

The farmers, customers of an irrigation district in Riverside and Imperial counties, could collect an estimated $100 million over 35 years so that Colorado River water once reserved for growing crops could be routed to agencies serving 18 million Southern Californians.

The MWD's agreement with the Palo Verde Irrigation District would set up the biggest long-term transfer to date of agricultural water to urban use in the Western United States, Dennis Underwood, the MWD's vice president of Colorado River resources, said Monday.

The MWD's board of directors is expected to approve the final terms of the deal today and start signing up farmers as soon as next month, district officials said. Water transfers could begin as early as August.

The agreement with the 100,000-acre irrigation district could involve up to 111,000 acre-feet of water annually. An acre-foot is enough to supply two single-family homes in California for a year.

If they sign up, farmers would get payments high enough to ensure that they would make more money than they would harvesting the alfalfa, hay, cotton and grains that grow in the hot, arid region along the Arizona border covered by the irrigation district.

"This works out for all," said Underwood. "You don't lose prime agriculture land, you don't change land ownership and you don't change water rights."

Farmers are typically fearful of the economic effect of letting land lie fallow, and they have been reluctant to give up water rights. Water is their livelihood, and the farmers in the region have a historical claim to it. The eastern edge of Riverside County is where the first water rights for the Colorado River in California were filed by Thomas Blythe -- after whom the area's main town is named -- in 1877.

But the farmers in the Palo Verde district have become accustomed to the idea in the three years it has taken to craft an agreement between their water agency and the MWD.

"We think this is going to be good for our valley and our farmers," said Jill Johnson, a fifth-generation Blythe farmer whose family tends 1,500 acres of alfalfa and wheat.

Johnson said rotating acreage under cultivation would be good for the soil, and that this program gave farmers the ability to leave ground fallow without losing revenue.

Under the proposal, the district's approximately 80 farmers would be eligible for a one-time payment of $3,170 an acre for up to 29% of their irrigated acreage. They also could receive an annual fee of $602 an acre for the land they kept fallow during a given year. Farmers would have to put at least 7% of their acreage into the program but couldn't go above the 29% limit. And they would have to rotate the acreage they left fallow at least every five years.

Johnson said she was pleased with the level of payments, considering that her crops net $50 to $400 an acre depending on the commodity markets.

The cash from the MWD would help stabilize the economy in the Blythe area, a community of 30,000, said Ed Smith, general manager of the 81-year-old Palo Verde Irrigation District. The population includes 8,000 inmates at two large prisons in the area.

"The money provides a safety net for the farmers, and will help keep them profitable for the next 35 years regardless of how good or bad the farm economy is," Smith said.

Other attempts to get farmers from that part of California to part with their irrigation water haven't gone as smoothly. Various proposals for the adjacent -- and much larger -- Imperial Irrigation District have been greeted with suspicion on the part of Imperial Valley farmers since the mid-1990s. That's when the billionaire Bass brothers of Fort Worth began buying acreage in the area with the intention of taking it out of production and selling the water rights to the parched San Diego County Water Authority, the MWD's biggest single customer.

That venture, which at the time was opposed by the MWD, blew up when farmers grew nervous about dealing with some "Texas billionaires," said Richard Howitt, an agriculture and resource economist at UC Davis.

Moreover, putting together a long-term agreement with the Imperial district also has been troubled by the conflicting goal of reviving the nearby Salton Sea -- a large inland lake, rich in fish and bird life, that is mainly fed by runoff from Imperial Valley irrigation.

Last year, however, the irrigation district completed a conservation-based deal with the San Diego County Water Authority that pays farmers to make water-saving improvements and to upgrade the local water distribution system, said Underwood, former commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

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