Friday, May 21, 2004

Landmark Water Pact Is Expected

As we enter the age of limits, tradeoff will be the order of the day. Initially these will be painful as we have been living beyond the land's carrying capacity. Only over time, as human society returns to a harmony with nature, will the tradeoffs be routine and normal.

The water situation in the American southwest, where we have built both cities and farms in the middle of a desert, will be one of the early test cases of how these tradeoffs will work.

An agreement in Southern California proposes to pay farmers to take land out of production so that irrigation water could be diverted to urban users. The tradeoff is lower agricultural production--although letting the land lay fallow may in the long run prevent soil degredation.

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.


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