The board of the Metropolitan Water District on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a plan to pay farmers in eastern Riverside County and northeast Imperial County to stop planting on a portion of their land so irrigation water can be diverted to urban users.
The agency, which supplies water for 18 million people in six Southern California counties, estimates that the landmark water transfer program will cost at least $100 million at the outset and will probably run into the hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of the 35-year agreement.
The arrangement with the 100,000-acre Palo Verde Irrigation District would create the biggest long-term transfer to date of agricultural water to urban use in the Western United States, experts said.
The deal would "help ensure reliable water for our region for decades to come," said Ronald R. Gastelum, the MWD's chief executive. The plan was approved by a 36-0 vote, with director Judy Abdo of Santa Monica abstaining.
The Palo Verde Irrigation District is expected to give its final approval at a special meeting in coming weeks, said Bart Fisher, president of the district's board of trustees.
"But the ultimate approval," he said, "will be over the next few months when the landowners and farmers here sign the contracts."
Farmers in the region, which borders Arizona, are generally supportive of the plan.
"We would all prefer to farm our lands," said Fisher, a third-generation farmer in the Palo Verde Valley. "But we also realize that political realities require us to cooperate in transferring some of our water to the coastal plain."
Fisher said the "economics of the deal" provide "a safety net beneath our farming operations."
The MWD's payments are expected to be more per acre than what a farmer makes from planting any of the crops -- alfalfa, hay, cotton and grains -- that grow in the region.
The MWD expects to start signing farmers to contracts next month. Water transfers could begin as early as August.
The agreement could divert up to 111,000 acre-feet of water a year, depending on the MWD's needs and how much land farmers are willing to leave fallow. An acre-foot is enough to supply two single-family homes in California for a year.
Under the plan, 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 land 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.
MWD officials estimated that the price tag of the program could go as high as $1 billion, under certain conditions.
But that assumes that the agency purchases the maximum amount of water allowed, that all farmers in the region put as much acreage into the program as they can and that inflation averages at least 5% each year for the entire 35 years of the agreement.
For the last two decades, inflation has averaged about 3% annually.