Farmers prepare for termination of water program


Issue Date: September 17, 2008
Kate Campbell

In a move that will affect crop production across much of the region, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California plans to end its discount program for agricultural irrigation water. The move, expected to be approved in October, will open the door to increased water costs for many Southland farmers.

If adopted by the MWD board of directors, the proposal could reduce food production, as farmers struggle to pay higher water costs on top of soaring costs for fuel, fertilizer and other supplies.

Under the discount program, participating farmers now save about $100 an acre-foot of water in exchange for agreeing to cutbacks of as much as 30 percent when MWD water supplies are low. MWD imposed the 30-percent cuts for the first time this year.

Non-discount water sells for about $700 an acre-foot through MWD member water agencies.

Discussion about eliminating the program has been going on since the beginning of 2008.

"We got grower reaction before this proposal was announced," said Eric Larson, San Diego County Farm Bureau executive director. "Some of our county Farm Bureau members sat on a committee with MWD staff to help craft this program's exit strategy. Before the proposed phaseout was sent for review to the MWD board, our own Farm Bureau board considered and approved the proposal."

San Diego County farmers account for about two-thirds of the water sold through the MWD program. Many San Diego County growers, however, have been willing to pay higher rates for a more reliable water supply and will be unaffected by the program change.

Once the phaseout strategy is adopted, participating farmers can opt out of the discount program immediately, which also returns them to full water service. Or, they can stay in the program and the discount will ramp down during a five-year period.

In western Riverside County, the impact of the discount water program phaseout will mean higher and higher water bills, said Steve Pastor, Riverside County Farm Bureau executive director.

"Higher water prices mean just one more hurdle to jump. We don't have hard numbers right now on what this change will mean in our county or across Southern California," Pastor said.

At the San Diego County Farm Bureau, Larson said he expects citrus and avocado production to be hardest hit by elimination of the discount water program. The two crops are significant contributors to the county's agricultural economy.

This year's 30 percent cutback in water deliveries for those using the program already led many avocado growers to stump trees to reduce water use. After being cut down to their stumps, the trees can be revitalized with adequate irrigation in the future, but fruit production takes three to five years to return.

"The 64-thousand-dollar question is what farmers can grow as an alternative, given higher water costs," Larson said. "If we knew what that magical crop was, we'd be out there letting people know."

Switching crops for avocado growers is particularly difficult, he said, because the trees often grow on very hilly, rocky terrain, which doesn't lend itself to many other crops.

"This change will certainly affect some of our smaller avocado producers, but we've been through similar challenges as an industry," said Guy Witney, California Avocado Commission director of research. "We've got a terrifically resilient bunch of growers. I'm sure the majority of growers will be able to stay in farming."

Witney said he anticipates that growers will be looking for ways to further improve irrigation efficiency on their ranches. The commission is participating in irrigation technology research and demonstration studies on two ranches, one in San Diego County, the other in Riverside County.

"We've got technology now that can deliver very precise irrigation amounts," he said. "For example, there are sensors now that compensate for height and elevation of slope to bring just the right amount of water to the trees."

Witney said farmers and researchers are testing new solar-powered evapotranspiration controllers. The devices deliver water according to accumulated weather data and then turn the irrigation equipment on. When the precise amount of water the trees require has been delivered, the equipment automatically shuts off. Water use data for the grove is then transmitted to the ranch office computer for farmer review.

He said he hopes that MWD will help San Diego County's estimated 6,500 avocado growers make the transition to the higher water rates—and higher water efficiency.

"These kinds of innovations may help farmers absorb the water rate increase," Whitney said. "What's going to take time, money and effort is transferring this new technology out to the grower base. That's where MWD will be able to help us out."

Brian Thomas, MWD assistant general manager and chief financial officer, said the current discount irrigation water program will not change in 2009, but the phaseout will begin in 2010.

MWD delivers to its member agencies about 150,000 acre-feet of water for agriculture, with about 100,000 acre-feet of that water going to the San Diego County Water Authority.

"We've got a phaseout plan that the grower community has endorsed in general. It's a phaseout of a discount on surplus water, but it also reduces the amount of water going to agriculture that can be cut in the future," Thomas said.

"Right now, we provide a discount for growers who take the first cut when water supplies are tight," he said. "This is the first year we've ever cut the supply, and cut up to 30 percent. Growers looked at the situation and realized there wouldn't be any surplus water for a long time."

Larson said the state's new water realities are forcing some tough business decisions on farmers about how to proceed into the next crop year.

"Painted into a corner, farmers will need to consider a higher level of water supply reliability, even with a 10 percent cut in delivery amounts, and whether they can pay a higher price for water," he said.

In San Bernardino County, many farmers also face steep price increases for water, even from districts that do not participate in the MWD program.

"The water company that serves the west end of San Bernardino County is petitioning for a 28 percent increase in water rates for the upcoming year," said Kathye Reitkerk, a Fontana nursery grower and president of the San Bernardino County Farm Bureau. "This will impact farmers' bottom line and is one more cost increase which, along with fuel and fertilizer price hikes, make it difficult to farm profitably."

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.